Why the electoral system should not be changed (from 2013)

IT IS now 10 years since the Electoral Task Team, chaired by the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, released its famous report on electoral reform. A Cape Town round-table discussion this week, organised by the Forum for Public Dialogue (FPD) and the University of Cape Town’s Van Zyl Slabbert visiting chair, Prof Roger Southall, met to contemplate the continuing salience of this report and to consider the relationship between electoral systems and political accountability.

The task team’s majority report, supported by Slabbert, championed a “mixed” system in which 300 out of 400 MPs would be elected in 69 multimember constituencies. Because constituency voting favours large parties — small parties cannot win any constituencies — a further 100 “top-up” MPs would be allocated to restore full proportionality between votes cast and MPs elected. The purpose was to create a link between MPs and constituents and so to enhance accountability. The government rejected this and concurred with the minority report’s judgment that a closed-list proportional system, without constituencies, should be retained.

FPD research commissioned for this week’s discussion suggests that the relationship between electoral systems and political outcomes is complex: institutions cannot simply be transplanted from one society to another. An element of constituency-based competition might allow citizens to engage with certain political events and arguments more closely than the present system allows. But elections are not strong instruments for holding politicians to account. Citizens do not know which politician has actually done what. This is especially so when the institutions required for an informed citizenry — effective education systems, free and accurate news media and strong civic associations — are lacking.

Reformers’ energies should arguably be directed towards these institutions and intrastate accountability systems, such as the auditor-general, the public protector and parliamentary oversight committees.

The changes proposed by Van Zyl Slabbert could also bring significant political hazards.

First, constituency competition might greatly weaken parties’ capacity to act coherently. Despite the African National Congress’s electoral strength, it is organisationally very weak. Local party barons are already plugged into provincial and municipal resource systems and greater autonomy would free them still further from party discipline. Those who believe strong and coherent parties are important for democracy therefore have reason to fear reforms that would disempower party bosses.

Second, constituency competition might introduce new political pathologies. The minority report observed that fierce local contests could “compromise racial and ethnic harmony”. The mobilisation of support around ethnicity would be almost inevitable. The present system, by contrast, obliges aspiring MPs to obey the nonracial doctrines of their parties.

Third, constituency-based elections would politicise boundary demarcation. As we have seen in Khutsong, this is a potentially fraught matter. In a postreform system, big parties would gerrymander and bus voters into swing constituencies.

Fourth, the personality politics that constituencies encourage can turn ugly. Business interests will want to buy constituency MPs; candidates will feel obliged to sell themselves. Every MP will be expected to bring resources to their constituents or even carry bulging suitcases full of cash for them ahead of elections.

Finally, local issues are already addressed in local elections (using very much the electoral system that Slabbert recommended for national politics). National elections should allow citizens to vote on manifesto commitments and on the overall quality political leadership, and not on a mishmash of local and populist concerns.

Given today’s political environment, constituency competition threatens to worsen tribalism, patronage and populism — all to secure accountability advantages that are at best unproven. The majority report’s recommendations should probably enjoy at least another decade of well-deserved slumber.

•  Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

Agang SA and umbrellas (from 2013)

THERE is nothing more sinister than people with umbrellas. Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident who defected to the West in 1969, poured scorn from exile on the regime that once persecuted him. On September 7 1978, at a bus stop close to London’s Waterloo Bridge, Markov felt a sting in his leg. He turned to see a man hurrying away with an umbrella. A micro-engineered pellet, containing the poison ricin, had been injected into his thigh from the umbrella’s tip. Within three days, he was dead.

Fictional villains have added to the umbrella’s ghoulish reputation.

Batman’s long-standing adversary, the Penguin, was a wobbling, waddling, hoodlum, who never left his lair without an umbrella. The Penguin’s umbrella was more than a rain-repelling accessory: it could fire bullets, double as a bullet-proof shield, or expel toxic gases. It could even serve as a parachute.

A more sympathetic parasol-wielding vigilante featured as the arch-villain in a long-running Thabo Mbeki-era miniseries, Fiscal Judge Dredd (recently revived as Planning Man).

Portrayed by Bollywood heartthrob Trevor Manuel, this imposing “Master of the Future” was an adversary of, well, more or less everybody. He also nursed inner demons. In a notorious 2007 horror flick called Polokwane!, Fiscal Judge Dredd ran amok, berating photographers and trying to attack a journalist with his neo-liberal golfing umbrella.

Now South African opposition politicians have “umbrella fever” once again as a result of Saturday’s launch by Mamphela Ramphele of a fictional political party called Agang SA.

Democratic Alliance (DA) activists believe that apartheid was wrong; but they also believe that somebody else was responsible for it. (They are not quite sure who.) Meanwhile, African citizens are disinclined to vote for a party that is willfully forgetful about history. DA leaders therefore need shielding from the black historical chickens that may come home to roost on election day. Could Ramphele, they wonder, pull a chicken-repellent umbrella out from under one of her hats?

The need for such an accessory was first identified by United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa, who observed long ago that only an opposition “umbrella body” could counter a dominant African National Congress.

Two clues about the umbrella’s potential size and pattern were revealed in Ramphele’s address to the Cape Town Press Club on Wednesday.

First, her promise to “unveil” her policy platform during Saturday’s launch said a lot about the so-called party’s character.

Unlike real political parties — which argue about policy, fight over candidate lists, and elect leaders — Agang (according to its website) wants to put “citizens … at the centre of public life” by “having conversations across the country, to understand people’s needs and expectations for the future”.

Ramphele’s soon to be “unveiled” leadership team is probably made up of Mbeki acolytes. Associates of Moeletsi Mbeki’s Foundation for Global Dialogue helped set up the party. Pro-Mbeki intellectuals, and businesspeople who made money doing business with the Mbeki-era state, are likely to become funders. Agang will aim to cannibalise the electoral carcass of the Mbeki-aligned Congress of the People.

Second, Ramphele told the Press Club that, in certain petitions to the Independent Electoral Commission, her party would be “working as a team” with the DA. “Working as a team”, of course, could go much further than this.

The Agang life-president claimed earlier this year that the DA and Agang could form a “mutual umbrella”. As a result of her close personal relationship with DA leader Helen Zille, an informal deal might already have been struck.

Perhaps Ramphele has consented to serve as the black front for a DA-controlled opposition alliance? Such an agreement might look like a clever way to dig the DA out of its racial hole; but it is unlikely, in the end, to win over many African voters.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

What does the new technological revolution mean?

We are at the beginning of a great information and communications revolution. Already the mobile phone has become almost ubiquitous, with seven out of 10 of the world’s poorest people owning one. The internet now reaches more than 3-billion people. Routine work is increasingly open to automation. And powerful new capacities for mass data analysis promise to transform all knowledge-based social and economic activity.

The full implications of such rapid technological changes are impossible to predict.

Human history has seen the relentless replacement of animal and then human labour by machines. The latest great waves of displacement saw agricultural labour decimated, and then manufacturing employment supplanted by service industries.

As in previous centuries, the most pervasive fears and hopes to which today’s new technologies have given rise concern their ramifications for employment.

One key difference today is that technology is starting to displace professionals and highly educated workers, as well as more ordinary folk. Writing under titles such as The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment, and What to Do When Machines Do Everything, a new generation of technology sceptics observe that the jobs of many industrial workers have already been lost. The positions of travel agents, truck drivers, paralegals, and taxi-drivers are imperiled. Soon the careers of doctors, lawyers, and computer programmers will also be on the line.

Advanced economies confront rising inequality and increased polarisation in their labour markets. The owners of businesses, and the possessors of non-routine higher-level skills, are likely to be the primary beneficiaries of change. Others, at least initially, will be clear losers.


Despite these fears, new technologies also hold great promise. As in the past, fresh techniques, and the efficiency gains they encourage, should generate the resources for education and training, and for social protection programmes to mitigate the strains of change. They will also create new and unexpected forms of work. There is already significant employment, for example, in fields such as social media, and the drone industry, that simply did not exist a decade ago.

The more fortunate citizens of technologically advanced countries, moreover, are increasingly becoming freed from many mundane and routine activities. They will enjoy progressively greater choice, convenience, and access to cultural and creative opportunities.

Both the potential gains and possible costs of the technological revolution are likely to be greatest in developing countries. As the World Bank’s 2016 World Development Report pointed out, there could be major dividends for developing countries from the spread of digital technologies.

New technologies can help businesses become more productive, lowering information and transaction costs and spurring innovation. Transaction-intensive tasks, in particular, can be accomplished significantly cheaper and faster.

Technology can also make economies more inclusive, by bringing goods and services into the reach of the poor. The cost of sending remittances from cities to rural families, for example, has plummeted as a result of digital payment systems. Some women enjoy unprecedented opportunities in business-process outsourcing and web-based commerce. The costs of job seeking have fallen dramatically.

Meanwhile, governments should be able to provide public services far more effectively. Digital ID systems make complex social grant programmes possible. Mass data can be used to target public health and social programmes more effectively.

While digital technologies have been spreading fast, however, these various “digital dividends” have so far been disappointing. One reason is that 60% of the world’s people do not have the reliable internet access that enables real participation in the digital economy. Countries such as SA continue to exhibit a variety of “digital divides”: gender, location, wealth and age significantly affect technological access and so skew access to benefits.

Equally important, the new technologies will not bring benefits in the absence of the traditional foundations of development: a flourishing and well-regulated business environment, a capable state, and effective education and training systems.

Businesses tend to be the prime beneficiaries of efficiency gains because the economics of the new technologies favour market concentration. Online platforms and internet intermediaries often secure dominant positions that they will exploit in the absence of strong regulators. Big firms, moreover, can use their power and wealth to limit the entry of competitors.

Second, the failure rate of e-government initiatives is extremely high almost everywhere, and their potential is often wasted. Digital technologies, for example, could be used to monitor teacher attendance and to improve learning outcomes in rural schools. However, these benefits will only accrue where appropriate accountability mechanisms are put in place.

Third, automation is in many countries already “hollowing out” labour markets and encouraging inequality. In a frightening prediction, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim suggested earlier that month that, “two-thirds of all jobs that currently exist in developing countries will be wiped out by automation … At the same time the internet, smartphones, and social media allow everyone to see exactly how everyone else lives, which is causing aspirations to rise all over the world”.

Far from promoting an inclusive economy, new technologies threaten to exacerbate economic exclusion. This means that the importance of education and training has redoubled, and that the skills that are imparted to the next generation of citizens must equip them not with particular skills that may soon become redundant but rather with the capacity to cope with a world of work that is undergoing dramatic change.

As the World Bank has observed, “policy-makers face a race between technology and education, and the winners will be those who encourage skill-upgrading so that all can benefit from digital opportunities”.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

Is it morally acceptable to be an Arsenal fan?

Is it morally acceptable to be an Arsenal fan? This question is widely contemplated even in England, the country in which the club is nominally situated. One typical joke concerns what one should call an Arsenal fan who has done well on an intelligence test. The answer: a cheat.

If Arsenal is not a popular club in London, how can it be legitimate for it to have numerous supporters in one of Britain’s distant, former colonial possessions?

A weekend listener to radio stations in SA might conclude that only soccer played in the English Premier League is real; local football games are a flickering shadow of the original. Little wonder then that the definition of success for a local footballer is to play for a European team, or that Bafana Bafana are so often held in low esteem.

Is this a problem that the disciples of decoloniality* in our universities can solve? After all, almost all South African sport exemplifies the unaddressed legacies of colonialism, racism and black dispossession. As in other colonial societies, settlers ridiculed “indigenous pursuits”, and these were increasingly confined to rural areas.

English-speaking settlers brought with them the major team sports of the colonial middle classes: rugby and cricket. They also introduced a codified version of the beautiful game.

It would be both fascinating and valuable to recover the history of African recreational traditions to understand how they were linked to the organisation and flourishing of precolonial societies. But to resuscitate such traditions, and to ban those that displaced them, is surely as undesirable as it is impossible.

Cricket and Christianity may be aspects of colonial domination, but they may also embody truth and beauty. (Cricket, anyway.) And they can be turned against those who introduced them: soccer’s offside rule may be a western import, but so too is Karl Marx’s theory of history.

To crush the colonial powers at their own game — as Australians, Indians, Brazilians and Afrikaners have all discovered — can be deeply satisfying. If only such rewards had been available across the previous century to the men in Xhosa and coloured societies who also embraced rugby.

Football associations were thriving by the early 20th century. But the black leagues were starved of resources, and the game was remorselessly segregated. Race laws meant SA had to send either all-white or all-black teams to international events, a restriction the Confederation of African Football rejected on principle — perhaps its first — in 1957. By 1976, segregation had resulted in SA’s expulsion from Fifa.

After 1994, institutional and economic barriers remained in place. Soccer in SA is starved of financial and political resources because it lacks both the deep-seated popular enthusiasm that buoys the sport elsewhere, and the real engagement of knowledgeable supporters.


Wealthy Arsenal fans here complain that South African football is just not clean and that this is why they have abandoned it. But many Premier League clubs are the money-laundering investments of Russian oligarchs. Arsenal’s biggest shareholder is Stan Kroenke, a dubious multibillionaire who hails from a land where there is no real football.

We do not have many choices when it comes to identity. Inadvertently, “I am an Arsenal fan” may mean that what happens there matters more to you than what happens here. And, if you can’t tear yourself free from the allegedly mesmerising attractions of the colonial heartland, at least show some respect and judgment: support Crystal Palace instead.

  • Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

*Decoloniality was wrongly changed to decolonisation in the newspaper version.

Zuma’s terrible policy conference

President Jacob Zuma had a disastrous policy conference. Widespread expectations that a coalition of pro-Zuma provinces and leagues would sweep aside all opposition proved unfounded. Instead, events confirmed the analysis of sceptics who have doubted the prospects of the Zuma faction in the elective conference of the ANC due to be held in December.

Fears about political instability and policy uncertainty were stoked by Zuma’s theatrical opening address to delegates, and by the initial swagger of many of his supporters on the conference floor. As the president’s initiatives foundered one after the other, however, some broad realities became clear: Zuma has little control over leadership elections, factional consolidation, policy direction or organisational change.

First, supporters of the candidacy of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as Zuma’s successor were subdued. Dlamini-Zuma reportedly made little impact when she spoke. Her evident unsuitability to be the party’s presidential candidate in the 2019 national elections inspired ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete to throw another one of her hats into the ring as an alternative “credible woman”.

For such an unlikely idea to have been aired at all indicates desperation in the Zuma camp about Dlamini-Zuma. Pressure will escalate for Zuma to identify a fresh candidate to more energetically wave the flag for KwaZulu-Natal, the premier league and the current patronage apparatus.

Second, the fragility of the coalition behind Zuma was further exposed. The incoherence of the “premier league” of maize-producing, rural provinces, was made clear by the fence-sitting of Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza.

Even the pro-Zuma KwaZulu-Natal chairperson, Sihle Zikalala, was careful to balance support for Zuma’s broader agenda with caution about the damaging impact of the Gupta family.

The Youth and Women’s Leagues still have votes to deploy in December, but they are now organisationally and intellectually impotent. The Women’s League’s decision that six men should join their delegation — because they are “less emotional” than women — marked a new low in ANC patriarchy.

In the commissions, the Youth League proved to be ineffectual in trying to deliver a carefully rehearsed script about the racial character of “monopoly capital”.

Third, the quite conservative policy agenda of the ANC emerged unscathed. With regard to the expropriation of land without compensation, black empowerment targets in the mining industry, Reserve Bank inflation targeting and the creation of a state bank, the Zuma camp’s anticipated symbolic victories all came to nothing.

Positions long supported by Cyril Ramaphosa and Gwede Mantashe — that the Bank’s private shareholder anomaly should be removed, that a state bank based in the Post Office should target small business finance, and that prudent negotiations are required in a fragile mining industry — all held sway.

Mantashe’s post-conference observation that capitalism is a “nuisance” — but that it is inescapable — captured the ANC’s enduring pragmatism on this issue well.

There was also little appetite for the usual rhetorical attacks on the media or the courts — presumably because their value has been demonstrated by the actions of Zuma and his associates.

Finally, various proposals for institutional and organisation change were advanced, but none was of any immediate significance. Gimmicks about the size of the top leadership — including an invitation to a defeated presidential candidate to become “second deputy president” — are meaningless in the absence of wider electoral system reform. Such wider changes cannot happen in advance of December’s watershed conference.

Zuma is down even if he is not out. In his closing address to the conference, he said the ANC has emerged both wiser and better. “We have a keen understanding of the challenges and how to overcome them,” he observed. No doubt he has a “Plan B”; all indications are that he will need one.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Practical Reason blog

This blog contains some of my opinion pieces and short essays about politics. I will also place topical personal and political writing here.

Some of my books and edited collections are listed in the sidebar to the right. I have tried to indicate their intended audiences.

The home page shows deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and NUM general secretary Frans Baleni at a NUM meeting in Boksburg in 2015.

In the 2014 photo above, taken at the Presidential Guesthouse, President Zuma had just returned from Moscow, amidst rumours of illness or even poisoning. He seemed fragile and vulnerable. This did not last.

Anthony Butler