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Briefing paper

BP76: Proportional representation and popular assessments of MP performance in South Africa: A desire for electoral reform?

Afrobarometer Briefing Paper No. 76
3 Nov 2009 South Africa
Download (English)

The subject of electoral reforms has been attracting increasing interest in South Africa. Nearly two years ago, a panel of experts was commissioned to investigate how Parliament could improve its work. The panel recently recommended that South Africa’s electoral system be reformed into a mixed system that would include a constituency-based electoral system as one of its components. But even before publication of this report, several parliamentary actions had reignited public calls for electoral reform. Parliament’s resolution disbanding the highly successful crime-busting unit, the Scorpions, was one such action. Parliament took this step acting upon the instructions of the ruling party, at least initially undermining the required public participation process required by law. This suggests that in the South African Parliament, the interests of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) trump those of the general public. Such indifference to public sentiment highlights the perils of a proportional representation (PR) system that encourages the indebtedness of Members of Parliament (MPs) to their party leadership while undermining accountability to the general public. As a result, electoral reform has become a campaign issue, featuring in the manifestos of nearly all of the opposition parties.

This policy brief examines public attitudes towards MPs, and indirectly towards the present electoral system. The Afrobarometer survey did not ask directly whether people wanted electoral reform, including constituency-based selection of MPs. But it did ask a range of questions about the accessibility of MPs, satisfaction with their performance, and accountability relationships. These help us to get an overall sense of the level of satisfaction – or dissatisfaction – with the current system and how it is functioning.

In sum, the findings reported here do not suggest a high level of popular dissatisfaction with the current system, particularly when they are considered in comparison to other countries, including many that do have single-member constituency systems. Though many South Africans are not fully satisfied with their MPs and their accessibility, they don’t appear, on average, to be more dissatisfied than other Africans. This suggests that electoral reform may not be a high priority for many South Africans. But evidence that PR does indeed fail to promote a relationship of accountability between MPs and voters nonetheless raises some cause for concern.