Since the end of apartheid rule in 1994, South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC) has won an outright majority of seats in parliament in every election.
Due to the party proportional representative system the country has adopted, people vote for a political party and not an individual. Also, political parties get a share of seats in direct proportion to the number of votes cast in an election.
Essentially, the ANC, and not individual South Africans, has decided every single president for almost three decades, beginning with the revered Nelson Mandela. In that period, there have been several recommendations for changes to that system but so far but nothing has come of it.
And as citizens and the judiciary once again appraise what observers are calling the ANC’s many shortcomings, the recommendation of a high-profile government commission has raised the question again.
In June, Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, who chaired the commission of inquiry into “state capture”, the corruption scandal surrounding former President Jacob Zuma and his dealings with the controversial Gupta brothers, delivered his final report.
The report had many revelations including evidence of irregularities relating to tenders at multiple government agencies and implicated many government officials.
But the last instalment came with a surprise recommendation for reforms of what Zondo called a “flawed” electoral system, to allow people to vote directly for their president.
“We are bound to ask the question: How did the country end up having as president someone who would act the way President Zuma acted?” he said. “A president who would fire the minister of finance just because his friends wanted someone else in that position.”
He recommended that parliament consider introducing a constituency-based system to enhance the capacity of MPs to hold Pretoria accountable, as well as other electoral reforms.
‘A drastic move’
For this to happen, parliament has to amend the constitution.
Analysts say any changes would be radical for South Africa’s young democracy and it could mean an end to the chokehold of the ANC on power.
Some opposition politicians have also said the recommendation is no silver bullet to the country’s problems even as others say it is a step in the right direction.
Mmusi Maimane, former leader of the country’s largest opposition, the Democratic Alliance, told Al Jazeera that “political will and an active civic society” is needed to make the Zondo recommendation happen.
“The bulk of African states have direct elections, they hold elections in constituencies so people are always empowered,” he told Al Jazeera. “The process would require a strengthening of the electoral bill to allow direct elections of majority of MPs so that the speaker who is elected amongst the constituents can also be held accountable,” he said.
Another opposition leader, Dennis Bloem of the Congress of the People (COPE), said a change in the system would be good for the country’s democracy. “Judge Zondo is saying what we have been saying since 2008, we must push for it to happen because this will save the country,” he told Al Jazeera.
Paul Hoffman of civil society group Accountability Now said South Africans are not ready for “such a drastic move yet” as “allowing people to decide who leads the country is a recipe for disaster”.
Instead, he wants the implementation of an electoral college alongside parliament. “This is where you have a filter, not an election by the people, but the filter is the chief justice who can be called into play to determine that the candidate complies with the no criminal record and other rationality requirements to lead the country.
In four months, President Cyril Ramaphosa will present his response to the commission’s findings and recommendations. Zondo has said the president, who was Zuma’s deputy, should have made inquiries about allegations of corruption under that administration.
Ramaphosa is currently in the thick of the Phala Phala farm scandal, which saw $4m stolen in cash and which went unreported. Eventually, the ANC may find itself in another situation of having to make a call on whether he stays as president – just like it did with Zuma.
And COPE’s Bloem sees it as more reason to enact the Zondo recommendation, so the public can have an input.
Citing the forced resignation of Zuma’s predecessor Thabo Mbeki in 2008, Bloem said it was sad that 80 people in the ANC’s National Executive Committee could recall him without consulting the nation.
“They sit in a room and then remove a president and the country and the voters have no say in that, that is wrong,” he said. “The voters must raise their voices and support what Zondo is proposing.”
But politicians and civil society say the constitutional change is unlikely to happen anytime soon because of the ANC. “They will fight to keep the status quo because they know if it’s up to the voters, they will never win the battle,” Bloem, a former ANC member, said.