South Africa’s Electoral System Flawed, Graft Ombudsman Says

Thuli Madonsela
Advocate and Public Protector of South Africa., Thuli Madonsela. Photographer: Vathiswa Ruselo/Sowetan/Gallo Images/Getty Images

South Africa’s electoral system is flawed and needs to be overhauled to promote greater accountability and good governance, the nation’s graft ombudsman said.

“Proportional representation is a huge weakness in our constitutional democracy,” Public Protector Thuli Madonsela said in an Aug. 5 interview at Bloomberg’s Johannesburg office. “We need someone who is purely accountable to the people. At the moment, one can fail the people and you just have to be OK with the party bosses.”

South Africa’s political parties decide on their presidential and lawmaker candidates ahead of five-yearly elections and allocate them constituencies. The system ensures the politicians who control the ruling party control the country and gives the electorate no direct say over who represents them. While an advisory panel appointed by the government in 2002 said the system should be overhauled to make it more accountable, its recommendations were never implemented.

The African National Congress has dominated South African politics since it won power under Nelson Mandela in the first multiracial elections in 1994. President Jacob Zuma, who has led the party since 2007, won a second five-year term last year despite being implicated in several graft scandals. He denies any wrongdoing.

Madonsela, 52, has clashed with the ANC after she found that Zuma unfairly benefited from a state-funded 216 million-rand ($17 million) upgrade of his private home and recommended he pay back some of the money.

Dual System

She plans to advocate for electoral reform and help strengthen the country’s democracy when her term as Public Protector ends next year, she said.

Civil rights groups are pushing for the constitution to be changed to allow for a dual electoral process, which would allow some legislators to be chosen under a constituency-based system and others under a proportional representation one, Madonsela said.

Those changes may have limited potential in strengthening South Africa’s democracy, said Ebrahim Fakir, a political analyst at the Johannesburg-based Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa.

“I’m in favor of a mixed system though I am aware of what its limitations are, that the system itself can’t change things,” he said by phone on Thursday. “We also need to change the political culture, not just in parties but in society as a whole for better accountability, oversight and more responsiveness.”

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