Electoral reform: Time to dust off the Van Zyl Slabbert report?

Ballot boxes on voting day, 8th May 2019. Picture: Neil McCartney

It published its report in January 2003, but parliament did not implement its recommendations and drafted new legislation, which has now been declared unconstitutional.

After the Constitutional Court gave parliament 24 months to come up with legislation that would allow independent candidates to contest national elections, it might find it useful to dig up a report it received in 2003 and let gather dust ever since.

In 2002, the Cabinet appointed the Electoral Task Team, which was chaired by Frederik van Zyl Slabbert. Its task was to “draft the new electoral legislation required by the Constitution”.

It published its report in January 2003, but parliament did not implement its recommendations and drafted new legislation.

The task team initially looked at 11 electoral systems, and one had much support.

It would entail 300 single-representative constituencies, elected in a first-past-the-post system – meaning if for instance five candidates compete for a seat, the one with the highest number of votes wins the election. This system is used in Britain. This system would easily accommodate independent candidates.

The remaining 100 seats for the National Assembly would be elected proportionally from national, closed party lists, like the 200 seats from the national lists currently elected for the National Assembly.

Candidates

This system is similar to our current municipal elections, where ward councillors are elected, making independent candidates possible, and there is also the proportional list.

However, the system was in the end found to be unacceptable, as it there would need to be 215 constituencies for provincial elections, which would have massive logistical challenges or require a constitutional amendment, or meant that provincial and national elections are held on different days, which would have huge cost implications.

In the end, the majority of the task team proposed a system where 300 seats are elected from closed party lists – meaning parties compile the lists and order of candidates – in 69 constituencies. The constituencies would have between three and seven members each, depending on the size of its population.

This system did not expressly make provision for independent candidates. However, it is not inconceivable that with a few minor tweaks, independent candidates would be able to be accommodated.

Groundwork

Either way, the report could provide some groundwork for the parliamentary committee that would be tasked with amending the legislation.

In its report, the task team remarked the governing ANC favoured the retention of the current system, with some other parties, of which the ACDP and FF Plus are still represented in parliament, while the DA, IFP, and UDM favoured the multi-member constituency mixed with the proportional list system.

On Thursday, the Constitutional Court declared the Electoral Act 73 of 1998 unconstitutional and ordered parliament to amend the legislation.

The court ruled that the act is deficient in that it does not provide for adult citizens to be elected to the national and provincial legislatures as independent candidates. This is inconsistent with the Constitution.

This after the New Nation Movement (NNM) went to court seeking an order allowing independent candidates to run for elections. It challenged the Electoral Act, arguing it infringed on the right to exercise individual political choices.

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