Overhauling South Africas electoral system must be done properly, and every concern must be adequately addressed before a new system is proposed, says the Institute of Relations (IRR). 

It was responding to the bill put forward to amend the Electoral Act to meet the Constitutional Court requirement to allow independents to stand for election to the National Assembly and the nine provincial legislatures. At present, one must be a member of a political party to run for election to any of these bodies.

The IRR warns that it will strenuously oppose any attempt to reschedule the next national election – which must be held by August 2024 – beyond the bounds of the constitutionally permissible.

In a statement, the IRR notes that in June 2020 the Constitutional Court gave Parliament two years to amend the Electoral Act. 

‘This deadline is now almost upon us. (A six-month extension has been applied for, but the request has yet to be heard.)

‘However, the proposed amendments, while meeting the letter of the ConCourt’s order, do not meet the spirit. While they do permit independents to run, such candidates will be severely disadvantaged compared to those standing on the tickets of political parties.’

The calculation to determine the seats that will be awarded to each party ‘is also flawed and a situation now exists where a party could win less than 50% of the vote, yet still emerge with more than 50% of the seats in a legislature’. 

‘This breaks proportionality, and would go against the constitutional imperative that any South African electoral system must result “in general, in proportional representation”.’

The IRR notes that it is understood that a submission was made by the Electoral Commission (IEC) to the home affairs portfolio committee to address a number of the problems in the bill in early May. While the IEC’s submission does address some of the problems with the bill, some difficulties remain. The issue of breaking proportionality remains, which the IEC’s submission does not solve.

‘Even if the deadline to amend the Electoral Act is extended, it is unlikely that all the flaws can be ironed out and a satisfactory electoral system proposed in that time. It would be better to go back to the drawing board and develop a new amendment bill, while ensuring that the problems that exist in the current bill are dealt with.’

On weekend reports that a postponement of the next national election could be considered, primarily because of the long delay before Parliament began its work of amending the Electoral Act, the IRR argues that ‘this is simply not acceptable and any postponement of the election cannot be countenanced’.

‘The IRR played a key role in ensuring that last year’s local government election went ahead after there were initial attempts to postpone the poll because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The IRR will again oppose any attempt to reschedule the next national election – which must be held by August 2024 – beyond the bounds of the constitutionally permissible.

Said Marius Roodt, analyst and writer at the IRR: ‘The original electoral bill which was put forward simply does not pass muster. There now seem to be some panicked moves to amend the bill to improve it but there will not be enough time to produce a bill which meets both the requirements of the Constitutional Court’s ruling, as well as the requirement in the Constitution that South Africa’s electoral system be broadly proportional.’

Said Roodt: ‘Elections are a cornerstone of democracy. We must ensure that proportionality remains while also guaranteeing that whichever system we decide upon is easy to understand for voters. The current amendment bill proposes an electoral system which likely exists nowhere else on the planet, and which is unnecessarily complicated.

‘We do not have to reinvent the wheel. There are many systems around the world which ensure proportionality while allowing individual independents to run. 

‘It is unfortunate but the bill in its current form must be scrapped and an electoral system fit for purpose must be developed and presented to the people of this country. South African elections are too important to be treated as an afterthought, which this current bill does.

‘At the same time we cannot even consider a postponement of the election. The IRR opposed attempts to postpone last year’s local government election and it will oppose any attempt to postpone the 2024 poll’, Roodt concluded. 

You can read IRR proposals on various electoral systems and recommendations for South Africa here.