Conference: Electoral Systems and Accountability: Options for Electoral Reforms in South Africa
p>28 August 2007
Vineyard, Cape Town, South Africa

The debate around the appropriate electoral system for South Africa still continues. The proposed conference, to be hosted by EISA and the Konrad-Anenauer-Stiftung (KAS), aims to contribute to this debate. The primary goal is to bring stakeholders together to explore available options for the electoral reform process in South Africa. The specific objectives of the Conference are to:

  • Investigate global electoral reform measures
  • Share lessons of experience from electoral reform within the SADC region
  • Discuss the main findings of the ETT and its recommendations, focusing specifically on the two options proposed and
  • Explore possible ways forward for electoral reforms in South Africa.

Background

While the significance of an electoral system to democracy is not a contested issue in both policy and academic circles, there is no consensus regarding what constitutes a perfect electoral model for sustainable democracy. In fact, throughout the world, there are many varieties of electoral systems; there is no single system that may be deemed perfect or totally imperfect given that the circumstances of each country tend to influence the adoption of a particular electoral system. In many African countries, electoral systems that are in place today were inherited from colonial administrations and have hardly been reformed to reflect national contexts. Many African countries face the challenge of deliberately reviewing their electoral systems and reforming them accordingly so that they are attuned to the national political culture and add to sustainable democracy.

In order to provide guidance on how best to go about reforming electoral systems with a clearly defined vision and objectives, Reynolds, Reilly and Ellis isolate ten key criteria:

  • Ensuring a representative parliament and inclusive government;
  • Making elections accessible and meaningful;
  • Providing incentives for conciliation and constructive management of conflicts;
  • Facilitating stable, transparent and efficient government;
  • Holding the government accountable and responsive;
  • Holding the elected representatives accountable and responsive;
  • Encouraging "cross-cutting" political parties;
  • Promoting legislative opposition and oversight;
  • Making the election process cost-effective and sustainable;
  • Taking into account international norms and standards (2005:9-14).

This provides a broad menu of issues that should inform electoral system reforms. They may not all apply in each case. Some would apply more forcefully than others depending upon the circumstances of each country. Debate on electoral reform options in South Africa should be understood in this context.

Problem Statement

South Africa underwent a major political transformation with the demise of apartheid and the introduction of a democratic dispensation and the Government of National Unity (GNU) led by the African National Congress (ANC) in 1994. Part of this political transformation involved the reform of the country's electoral system. During the apartheid minority rule, South Africa operated the constituency-based single-member plurality system, also known as the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system. With the demise of apartheid and the onset of democratic government, this system was changed and the party list Proportional Representation (PR) system was adopted. Some five years into the country's democratic transition, debate began to rage around whether or not the PR system was serving the country's young democracy well and whether or not there was a need to reform the model once more towards a mixture of PR and FPTP. At the heart of all these debates was the concern that the party list PR system tends to reinforce the dominance of parties and that individual Members of Parliament (MPs) become beholden to party leaders and less so to the electorate. This concern is linked to the second which critiques the extent to which citizens may effectively hold MPs accountable under the PR system.

Topics to be covered

  • Global Perspectives and Trends in Electoral System Reforms
  • Electoral System Reforms: Experiences from the Southern African Region
  • The Implications of HIV/AIDS for Electoral System Design in South Africa
  • Accountability and Consolidation of Democracy in South Africa
  • Survey Findings: Citizens' attitudes toward electoral systems and their link to the ETT report recommendations
  • Electoral System Reform: What options for South Africa?
  • The Impact of Electoral Systems on Africans' Engagement with and Support for Democracy: Implications for South Africa
  • Position of Political Parties on Electoral System Reform in South Africa