Columnists 17.8.2016 08:09 am

Gwede, here’s how voting works

Martin Williams

Martin Williams

The people have spoken in 2016. Change is afoot. The people will have a lot more to say in 2019 and beyond.

Sore loser Gwede Mantashe blames the electoral system for his party’s setbacks. In doing so, the ANC secretary-general again fails to acknowledge that President Jacob Zuma is the chief electoral liability. Perhaps Mantashe hasn’t noticed, but after August 3, the ANC is unlikely to muster the two-thirds majority required for any implied constitutional changes.

Our system is designed to allow a greater diversity of voices. Unlike the winner-takes-all system of the apartheid era, it encourages coalitions. Sometimes Mantashe is inarticulate. He mumbles. Even so, it is remarkable that a senior politician should express bafflement about local government election calculations. It’s simple. The number of seats a party is allocated in any council is determined by its percentage of the vote in that municipality. Makes sense. Each voter gets two ballots: one for a ward candidate; one for the proportional representation (PR) list.

In each council, these two totals are added together for each party to determine that party’s percentage. Hence the number of seats for that party. You follow? From that number of seats for each party is subtracted the number of wards won by that party. The remainder after this subtraction is the number of PR seats for the party. Mantashe’s objection is that, in Nelson Mandela Bay, the ANC won more wards than the DA but ended up with fewer seats. This happened, though, because DA wards were won with bigger majorities.

More of that city’s residents voted for the DA than for the ANC. So the outcome is not unfair. Yet every electoral system should be amenable to review. But it’s hard not to be cynical about the ANC’s sudden interest in tinkering. Compared with national and provincial elections, South Africa’s local government system is responsive to the wishes of the people. Ineffective ward councillors can be voted out, even if party bosses can still appoint them as PR list councillors.

At national level, the wishes of the people are more easily thwarted. Voters have almost no say over the choice of MPs. They vote for lists compiled by a party leadership, rather than for MPs to represent constituencies in the way that councillors represent wards. In 2003, at the request of then president Thabo Mbeki, Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert led a team that produced a report on the electoral system.

It recommended a broader, mixed-constituency/PR system, more responsive to the wishes of the people. At the time, ANC leaders were happy with the amount of control they could exercise without bothering about what people actually thought. So they shelved the Slabbert report. If Mantashe and co are serious about electoral reform, they could scarcely do better than revisit Slabbert. For the long-term health of this democracy, it is vital that leaders listen to communities.

The people have spoken in 2016. Change is afoot. The people will have a lot more to say in 2019 and beyond. So let’s consider electoral reform. But not in the style of the disconnected, denialist ANC elite. We need a system that tunes in to the electorate.


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