Electoral Reform – What Political Parties Have To Say

Discussions about electoral reform in South Africa have again come to the forefront over the last few weeks. This brief succinctly discusses the attitudes of four political parties towards electoral reform and how reform may or may not effect change to accountability and representation.

Discussions about electoral reform in South Africa have again come to the forefront over the last few weeks. Attempts at electoral reform have been suggested previously, such as the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission (2003) and the Independent Panel of Assessment of Parliament. However, these reports now sit in parliament gathering dust, as no action has been taken in the last 10 years.

A simple question illustrates some of the major problems with our electoral system: How many South Africans know who their local Member of Parliament (MP) is? The current electoral system allows for MPs to operate at a distance from the electorate that diminishes accountability and fails to ensure maximum representation. Recently, several political parties have proposed reforming the system. These reform ideas all aim to achieve greater accountability and representation in South Africa.

Proportional Representation System

Currently, the South Africa electoral system operates through Proportional Representation (PR). This system creates a direct link between the number of votes cast and the number of representatives allocated.

Analysts argue that the PR system is one of the fairer options as it allows all parties that receive votes, no matter how few, to be represented in parliament (provided they meet the minimum threshold). A party does not have to achieve a majority vote in a single area or constituency to gain a seat. The number of voters in a constituency does not influence the outcome as the entire country is treated as one large constituency where votes are weighted equally. This means that no vote is wasted as all votes contribute to the overall representation of the party, the number of votes gained being proportional to the number of seats it achieves. A further benefit is that this system is easy to explain to the electorate and supposedly continues to encourage reconciliation and cooperation. [1]

However, South Africa has seen a widening gap of accountability between its electorate and elected MPs.  The disadvantages of the PR system in practice seem to outweigh the supposed benefits.

These disadvantages include the fact that there is a high degree of unaccountability amongst our public representatives. This is compounded by the fact that in a PR system the voters vote for a party and not for a specific candidate. This also means that MPs are more likely to focus on their party leaderships as they determine the position on the PR list. Position on the list determines chances of being elected. There is no incentive to make the voters happy. This system could also lead to the situation where a large number of (divided) minority parties could, potentially, destabilise government or fragment the opposition. Governing can become difficult.

Constituency Based System

The system which is not in place in National Government at this time is the constituency based electoral system. This system only operates as an adjunct to the PR system at Local Government level.

This system differs from PR in that the entire country is divided into smaller geographic areas (or constituencies) and each constituency is entitled to be represented in Parliament by the MP elected for that constituency. This is not dissimilar to how ward councillors are elected to represent wards at municipal level.

The advantage of this is that each constituency is able to be represented by a single MP who can serve a smaller area directly. Also, electors in every constituency can identify their MPs and can hold them accountable from election-to-election. There is a possibility of independent candidates standing, thus rivalling traditional party political candidates.

As MPs are elected by their constituency and not directly by the party (they are only selected by the party to be the party’s official candidate), MPs are incentivized to put local interests first because, if they tow the party line over an issue that is unpopular with their constituency’s residents, they are likely to lose an election. These “rebels” often have great individual local followings which assure them political support (this is often seen to be the case in the UK).

The disadvantages to this system are that parties only invest money and energy into constituencies where there is a greater chance of winning (so-called swing seats). They do not seriously campaign in areas where incumbents have large majorities (so-called safe seats) because of the difficulty in turning those seats around.

Minority party voters in safe seats often feel isolated because they are treated as though their votes do not count. In the UK for example only 100 or so seats determine the election. The other 550 or so seats only change in dramatic or drastic circumstances.

A party may win a majority of constituencies by relatively small margins and gain the greatest number of seats but not be the most popular party overall. The United party defeat in 1948 is an example closer to home.

Political Party Opinion

So what do Political Parties have to say? Below is a sampling of political commentary on electoral reform. Four parties, the DA, Agang, the ANC and ACDP all have contributed in one way or another to this electoral reform discussion.

The Democratic Alliance (DA)

The DA has focused on the need to make MPs more accountable to the electorate. It launched an Electoral Reform Bill in March 2013. The DA suggests that accountability can be achieved by using a multi-member constituency system similar to that of Germany.

The DA proposes that 100 three-member constituencies, each with the same number of voters, should be established. [1] The three MPs representing each constituency will be elected through PR. The electorate will still cast their vote for their preferred party. The three members who gain the largest number of votes will be elected as the MPs for that constituency. A total of 300 MPs will be elected in this manner.

The Bill proposes that the remaining 100 seats of the 400 which make up the National Assembly will be allocated to parties on the basis of PR. This means that parties that do not win a constituency because of a geographical spread of their support may still be elected to Parliament. This is because the remaining 100 seats are divided according to the popular vote statistics. This is not dissimilar to the way in which PR municipal councillors are appointed. [2]

Alternatives to the present PR system include:

“Reasons for having three members from each of the 100 constituencies rather than one member from each of these constituencies are that: it increases the likelihood of an individual voter being able to identify with at least one of his or her elected constituency MPs. It also enhances the practicality of achieving the correct party proportionality in the National Assembly after the 100 members from the national list have been allocated”. [3]


A few weeks prior to the launch of the DA’s Private Members Bill, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, leader of Agang, indicated that electoral reform was one of her main priorities on her agenda for Parliament after the 2014 elections. Whilst Agang admits that its policy detail is still being developed, they welcomed the DA’s initiatives as a mechanism of ensuring that people who feel unrepresented/ underrepresented could find a meaningful political voice. [4]

“Citizens must have the right to choose who represents them in Parliament, to hold them accountable and to replace them if they don’t perform.” [5]

African National Congress (ANC)

The ANC Chief Whip (Dr Mathole Motshekga) issued a statement that was critical of the DA’s recent proposal. Significantly, it looks as if the ANC will back the current PR system:

“The ANC adopted the current proportional representation (PR) system after 1994 because we wanted an inclusive system that is representative of minority views, in the interest of an inclusive transition. (This) system has facilitated ... a special focus on women, rural communities and other targeted groups... The PR system is accommodative of even smaller parties, thereby ensuring participatory democracy.” [6]

The African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP)

The African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) has also discussed electoral reform and supports the DA’s proposal for the need for more accountability. However, it fears, understandably, that a constituency based approach would allow for minority interests to be underrepresented in Parliament.


While this debate has been ongoing, the formal proposals put on the table by the DA have injected new life into this important debate. However, it is important that political parties remember, in their interactions, that making citizens feel more included in the political system should be their objective rather than focusing on narrow self-interests. Without an accountable and representative electoral system, the constitutional achievements of democracy will be nothing more than an unfulfilled commitment on paper. It is hoped that in the months to come citizens themselves will become more vocal on this issue and demand that real and meaningful change is considered and ultimately enacted in their name.


1. James Selfe, DA Electoral Reform Bill will make MPs accountable to the people, Democratic Alliance Press Statement, 4 March 2013.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Mamphela Ramphele being quoted in The New Age : http://www.thenewage.co.za/85775-1007-53-Ramphele_nod_for_electoral_reform
5. http://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/ramphele-gives-nod-to-electoral-reform-1.1480519#.UT75_NZyD94
6. SAPA, ‘Electoral Reform not the way, says ANC”. Available: http://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/electoral-reform-not-the-way-says-anc-1.1480425#.UTcVBqJyD95. 05 March 2013.

Ashleigh Fraserashleigh@hsf.org.za
Helen Suzman Foundation