Why the ANC’s secret police call the shots from Luthuli House

WHEN the South African constitution was being drafted in 1993, its weakest link – now visibly cracked – was the party-list system for elections of politicians.

A new clause reads: “The 11th floor governs!”

As voting day looms on May 7, thousands of conversations are taking place among people who previously voted solidly for the ANC, asking whether the list from the 11th floor really represents what is best for the country. They are asking: What has gone wrong? And: What can be done to change it?

A good quality debate has already begun on this subject, with opposing positions argued by two of the country’s top intellectual thinkers. It is too late, of course, for this debate to have an effect on the elections. The important thing is that lines of argument are being set out, which indicate where the real debate in the country will take place over coming years.

Once again, as under apartheid, this real debate of the nation is taking place outside of parliament, not within it.

The first major statement of position was by the foremost intellectual thinker on the ANC benches within the National Assembly, as a minister in government, in negotiating the end of apartheid and at ANC headquarters in Lusaka in exile: Dr Z Pallo Jordan.

Set out in his column in Business Day on February 27, under the heading “Inclusivity is SA electoral system’s biggest plus”, his argument deserves consideration not only on its merits but because Jordan is probably the only leading ANC political figure who experienced the cutting edge of Mbokodo himself.

Seriously injured in Maputo in 1982 by a bomb sent by the apartheid security police which killed Ruth First, he was detained within a year by Mbokodo in Lusaka while working as a senior ANC official under acting president, OR Tambo.

Held without trial for six weeks before Tambo secured his release, an account of a conversation in Mbokodo about him deserves attention.

An unchallenged paper by historian, Professor Stephen Ellis, published in London in the journal African Affairs in 1994 under the title “Mbokodo: Security in ANC Camps, 1961-1990”, quotes a former Mbokodo official, Oyama Mabandla, as follows:

“Pallo was detained on the orders of Party member and Mbokodo chieftain, Peter Boroko. Another member of the Party, Francis Malaya, an official with Department of Information and Publicity (DIP), and a secret informant of Mbokodo, complained about Pallo’s behaviour.

“Pallo was accused of exposing the Mbokodo informant network within DIP by mockingly referring to Malaya and another man named Ace ... as Amapolisa - warning other DIP staffers to be careful of them. On that basis, Pallo was detained and was to spend six weeks in detention.

“I participated in an informal meeting at Green House (Mbokodo HQ) which discussed Pallo’s arrest .... During the discussion one Mbokodo officer made a chilling remark which seemed to capture the essence of the entire saga. The comment went thus: ‘eli intellectual lase Merika liijwayela kabi’: (this American trained intellectual is uppity) – and thus in need of straightening out. Clearly, the arrest had ideological overtones.”

More than 30 years later, Jordan in his article in Business Day, notes the concerns about the country’s post-apartheid electoral system. He observes that “critics of our electoral system complain that it distorts the people’s democratic will. Some say the list system disempowers MPs because it makes them accountable to political parties, rather than to voters.

“Others argue that our system disempowers ordinary citizens, who have no identifiable personality to whom to turn for relief regarding government failures ....

“A party like the ANC ...so the argument goes, can fill its benches with MPs of indifferent quality because the system offers no space for the evaluation of individuals.”

He points out, however, that the aim of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) in 1993, resulting in the present electoral law, was a political system which would be “as inclusive as possible”, able to “attract even the smallest body of political opinion to engage in the political process. To achieve that effect, it should stimulate the participation of small parties. Proportional representation has that singular virtue, provided the threshold of entry is sufficiently low.”

Codesa concluded that proportional representation “made it difficult for one party to become dominant”. Its consensus was that a “proportional lists system would temper the ambitions of the bigger parties and ensure that no one party could govern on its own terms”.

Two weeks later this argument for “inclusivity” found a reply from Barney Mthombothi, who for eight years was editor of the Financial Mail, South Africa’s premier business magazine.

Writing on March 16 in the Sunday Times in an article headed “Party-list iniquity the unfinished business of our democracy”, Mthombothi argued that “screwed values and priorities” and a “paucity of talent” affect all political parties in South Africa. Bad practice follows, he went on, because “the system allows” it.

“The voter is of no consequence, just a pawn in the system... We often boast that we have the finest constitution in the world, but our electoral system is almost designed to subvert our democracy. It is unaccountable to the voter and is almost designed to be manipulated by party bosses. It often rewards incompetence.”

What is needed, he argued, is an “electoral system that was accountable to the voter. The party-list system leaves the party bosses holding all the aces. It’s a blank cheque, and they can write it whichever way they like. Party leaders decide who’s in or out of parliament. Public representatives are therefore accountable to them and likely to want to please them and not the voter, as should be the case in a democracy.

“What the country needs is a system that ensures that anybody who holds public office does so by virtue of a direct election by voters. That’s the absolute bottom line. It means that candidates running for president, MP, mayor, down to the local councillor, will have to earn the vote – and the trust – of the voter ...

“Supporters of the system say it’s necessary because it’s inclusive and will unite the country. It hasn’t done so in 20 years. In fact, the cracks are wider than ever.”

According to Mthombothi, “it is time to look for an alternative electoral system. That’s the unfinished business of our democracy.”

A prime topic in the intellectual life of the country is now clearly set out before the voters: whether, and how, to change the electoral system.

Intellectual leadership and guidance is once again being provided to the nation by figures of the stature and experience of Pallo Jordan and Barney Mthombothi.

A Dispatch debate in East London on this issue would help enormously to revive the country’s historic striving towards freedom and democracy.

If nothing is done the country will remain in the hands of the spooks on the 11th floor.

Paul Trewhela edited MK’s underground newspaper, Freedom Fighter, during the Rivonia Trial, and was a political prisoner from 1964 to 1967

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