Let's Think

Western Cape drought help expose constitutional weakness

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The water crisis in Cape Town has become the latest event exposing a major fault line in the South African constitution.

The disproportionate influence that the system of a proportional electoral regime has on the country’s governance construct became a trap in which the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance stepped in off late.

We have written often in the past how the governing African National Congress (ANC) is the facilitator in main of so-called state capture through putting party interest above the need for good governance and national interest.

Not only has the water crisis in the Western Cape, and elsewhere in the country, become highly politicised – the subject of opportunistic party political point scoring – instead of being treated as an issue of crucial national interest – the DA has now also stepped into the trap of conflating political party and state.

Constitutional expert, Pierre de Vos, on his blog Constitutionally Speaking last week wrote: “In South Africa’s constitutional system, in which political parties play such a dominant role and in which voters vote for political parties and not individuals (except for ward councillors at local government level), the danger of conflating party and state looms large.

“The recent move by Democratic Alliance (DA) leader, Mmusi Maimane, to take ‘political control of each respective government’s response’ to the water crisis, is a textbook illustration of this conflation of party and state. This undermines democracy.”

He referred to the announcement by DA leader Mmusi Maimane that he is personally taking charge of dealing with the water crisis.” Mr Maimane is a member of the National Assembly (NA), and leader of the official opposition, but he does not serve in any capacity in either the national, or in any of the provincial or local governments in South Africa.”

The announcement asserts that all “DA-led governments are accountable” to Mr Maimane– voter elected representatives are not mentioned – and that Mr Maimane has taken “political control of each respective government’s response to the situation”.

As so often happens with the ANC where they govern, the DA’s internal factional battles also come in play, and he announced that he has “instructed that the management of the drought crisis at the City (of Cape Town) be transferred to the Executive Deputy Mayor”. This happened in the midst an internal DA onslaught on the serving mayor, Patricia de Lille.

“If you are a DA supporter untroubled by constitutional principle, or if you do not mind much that fundamental constitutional principles are breached for what you perceive to be a good cause, you might welcome this intervention by the DA leader in the democratic governance of the city of Cape Town and the Western Cape Province.

However, if – like me – you believe that respecting the Rule of Law matters; that democracy should not be subverted, even in a crisis; and, thus, that a political party in government (at either national, provincial, or local government) should not be allowed to conflate the party with the state, you will be troubled by the intervention of a political party leader in the functions of the city and the province,” writes De Vos.

Intentions gone wrong

The inclusion of the system of proportional representation on the basis of votes cast in elections, was intended to ensure a voice for minority groups in the legislative process at all levels of government.

However, an unintended result of the way proportionality was legislated in the constitution, is that political party interest has become paramount above all, and as is happening in the case of the water crisis – which calls for a unified and coordinated response from all – the greater good, gets lost. 

It has also given elected leaders disproportional power, while at the same time making them, at times extremely vulnerable to narrow interests of factions within their own parties.

This situation was well illustrated by the December election of Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, on whom so much hope is placed for reform governance in the country, as national leader of the ANC. The whole event was dominated by the question of what is in the best interest of the party, and preserving some unity within the party.

As political commentator, and writer of the blog Disconnected Democracy, Graham Sell, in an article last week pointed out, this hope might turn out to be misplaced.

We agree with him that: “The recent upsurge in demands for accountability by Parliamentary Committees also does not signal that the system is suddenly ‘fixed’, because it isn’t. If we haven’t learned from our bitter experiences with Zuma that everything depends upon the calibre and integrity of leadership, then we have learned nothing.

“My greatest concern relates to who might follow Ramaphosa, so believe we need to take time now to address the legislative defects in our Constitution that allow such abuses of power, not the least of which is the party-centric Proportional Representation electoral system.”


We think South Africans should stop our fixation on an individual, and investing so much hope in them and rather start concentrating on finding ways to fix some of the weaknesses in the system by shortening the link between voters and elected representatives. Popular elections of the President and geographical link for at least the majority of elected representatives at all three levels of government, would be a good start.

by Intelligence Bulletin Team

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