Fixing South Africa’s democracy

Martin van Staden / Midjourney
Martin van Staden / Midjourney

This article was first published by Daily Friend on 16 April 2024

On 29 May, South Africa will be faced with its seventh general election since 1994.

While the 1994 election saw this country escape the dark clutches of minority rule and Apartheid, subsequent elections have seen the ANC’s dominance erode South Africa’s rights, prosperity and safety. It is clear that ANC rule has not benefited South Africa, and that change is needed.

Hopefully, the result of the 2024 elections will be positive, and lead to better governance and much needed policy reform. But even if new, better leaders are elected, it will not change the fact that South Africa’s political structures could be far better.

While there is plenty to laud in our Constitution, South Africa’s democracy is far from perfect. All it takes for one party to dominate the country is for it to win more seats in Parliament than the rest. The winner in Parliament appoints the President, who appoints the ministers, who appoint everyone else. Even our judiciary faces attempts at interference.

This might sound normal to many South Africans, but it really shouldn’t be. Separation of powers is essential in a modern democracy, to ensure that no party becomes dominant and exploits its power, as the ANC has done repeatedly since it came to power. While a proportional-representation system is meant to ensure the presence of many minority voices, in South Africa it has led to a noisy, but ultimately toothless Parliament that just exists to rubberstamp the ANC’s policy diktats.

This should not be the case. There should not be one single party controlling everything. Governance is supposed to be about compromise between all members in a society – a far cry from what South Africa has achieved under the ANC hegemony. Democracy is meant to bring stability through negotiation, and unity through fairness. And in that way, South Africa’s democracy has failed.

But there are vital and basic reforms that can fix our flagging democracy, any one of which would go far to improve our political system and the entire society as a result.

Give power to the provinces

On paper, South Africa is a federal country. That means that provinces are meant to run their own affairs, pass their own policies, and act autonomously from the central government, which only exists to manage the armed forces and constitutional laws.

Unfortunately, the ANC’s obsession with power has ensured that provinces are only able to control the bare minimum of their affairs. Law enforcement, monopolistic parastatals, and disastrous national legislation still ensure that despite competence in a provincial government, it is still beholden to the national government.

But this unitary state is inefficient, allows corruption and incompetence to spread like a plague, and ensures that South Africans are unable to run their own affairs as would be best for them.

South Africa must embrace its pre-existing federal roots, rejecting central dominance, and allowing the vibrancy of local leadership and communities to solve local issues. Ideally, this would also involve the National Council of Provinces supplanting the national Parliament, with the legislature being made up of candidates from provinces, and the national government being elected in a separate election – ensuring separation of powers.

Ranking candidates for happy compromises

Voting for a single party, despite our system of proportional representation, ensures an ideology of winner-takes-all. Voters should be rational actors, working towards positive results, rather than factionalist fanatics who support one party through thick and thin, even to the detriment of the country.

The result of an election shouldn’t be one where the majority (no matter how slim or large) elects their ideal candidate, while everyone else must now put up with being governed by their perceived enemy. Rather, an election should be a compromise where as many voters as possible are content with the results, if not completely pleased.

This can take many forms. Voters could rank candidates in order of preference, which may require a bit too much time. Alternatively, they can vote for multiple parties, selecting three or five of the candidates that they’d be happy to have representing them.

My favourite form is for voters to pick three candidates; one they love, one they hate, and one they would be fine compromising on.

The result of any of these systems would be a government that does not equate to anyone’s favourite government, but rather one that best reflects all South Africans; not overly radical, not hateful, and committed to the policies that all South Africans can agree on − not just an arbitrary majority.

Ingoing and outgoing candidates to ensure political memory

Politics shouldn’t be a competition. The goal of governance is to ensure stability, peace, prosperity, and freedom for all South Africans. But too often in a democracy, newly elected parties spend much of their tenure undoing, often vindictively, what their predecessors did.

The solution to this is for the office of president to be held by two people concurrently: an Ingoing President and an Outgoing President. Each election, a new Ingoing President would be elected as the president is now. The previous Ingoing President will then become the Outgoing President and serve as an empowered advisor and co-ruler to the Ingoing President until the next election.

This cycle of concurrent presidents would ensure that there was negotiation, compromise, and good relations between even opposing parties. Too often, the successes and failures of previous regimes are forgotten. An Outgoing President’s job is to guide the Ingoing President, ensuring that these lessons are not forgotten.

Politics is the art of compromise

American economist Thomas Sowell put it well when he said: ‘There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.’ There is no perfect candidate for everyone in any democracy, but by localising politics, ensuring separation of powers, basing voting around finding compromise candidates, and protecting institutional memory, we can fix many of the inherent flaws in the democratic system, and ensure that one-party dominance and all its problems never come to infect our country again.


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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.




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