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Southern Africa Report Archive

Roger Southall tracks the dizzying round of "electoral prostitution" that has carried opportunist politicians from one party to another in search of a better positioning on the party rolls that determine the prospects of personal electoral success under the PR (proportional representation) system that exists in South Africa. (jbv)

vol 14 no 3

Electoral prostitution
Roger Southall

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 3, May 1999
Page 14
S.A. Electons"



Roger Southall teaches in the Department of Political Studies at Rhodes University.

Strictly speaking, prostitution concerns sale of sexual services for money or other benefit, but of course we use the term in other contexts. Why, then, "electoral prostitution"? For the simple reason that what we are faced with in South Africa in the run up to the 1999 election is the extremely unsavoury picture of a considerable number of politicians effectively selling themselves to the highest bidder. And the parties are responding by offering places on their national and provincial electoral lists to politicians who are deemed likely to pull in the votes. The ANC has even come up with its own word to denote its purchase strategy: it has gone in search of "magnets" deemed to have popular appeal.

There are few observers so naive as to believe that politicians anywhere engage in politics purely for reasons of principle. And thank heavens for that, we may say, as we don't want to have to deal with politicians driven only by an ideology or a belief which we oppose: it's better to be confronted by pragmatic right-wingers than principled fascists guided by notions of achieving a racially pure utopia. Even so, we also like to think that political parties and the politicians who represent them stand for something more than material self-gain. After all, democracy is meant to be a free market of ideas! And in the particular context of South African politics, most progressives would like to think, at the very least, that past commitments to the liberation struggle mean that the contemporary ANC is devoted to some sort of popular project designed to improve the life-prospects of the majority and that the Democratic Party (DP), if you like, remains committed to the defense of human rights against abuse by those who hold power. But what is happening in the run-up to the 1999 election suggests that any idea that politicians should be devoted to political principle is being seriously devalued in the parties' scramble for votes.

The impact of PR

In part the problem may lie with the list system associated with proportional representation (PR). There were, of course, sound reasons why the Interim Constitution which inaugurated South Africa's democratic transition replaced the Westminster-style, plurality electoral system with PR for the election of the National Assembly and the nine provincial assemblies. In keeping with the spirit of compromise, the key players recognized the need to ensure the proper political representation of minorities if the transitional settlement was to be adequately inclusive of opposites.

In contrast, staying with the plurality system would have led to the probable over-representation of the big battalions, or led to the African National Congress (ANC) sweeping to victory in all but a relative handful of constituencies. Not only would the enfranchisement of the African majority and the merger of the previously separate White, Coloured and Indian voters' rolls have properly required a fresh constituency boundary delimitation (whose end product would itself have likely become caught up in the negotiation process), but there would also have been the likely need for the authorities to embark upon a time-consuming process of registering the electorate. In contrast, the adoption of proportional representation in its simplest form allowed the 1994 election to proceed within just five months of the final agreement of the constitution. Would-be voters were merely required to demonstrate their eligibility before they registered their two votes, one for their favoured party at the national level, one for their favoured party at the provincial level. They could vote at whatever polling station they chose throughout the country. The system was rough and ready, but it proved workable on the day. Moreover, the performance in parliament of the smaller parties who would not have been there otherwise has generally justified their presence.

At the same time, there is no doubt that the switch to PR has also come at some cost. The major problems have been entirely predictable, totally in keeping with the classic faults of undiluted list systems as outlined by any basic text on electoral systems. First, party managers - who have the final say in drawing up the party lists of candidates - have been empowered at the expense of the party rank and file. And second, MPs have been freed of accountability to voters in individual constituencies.

Third, the parties have been liberated from the risks and opportunities of having to face by-elections when MPs die or opt to leave parliament. Instead, the party composition of parliament has remained the same, and the affected parties have simply replaced departing MPs. Parliament has thus been serving as a kind of revolving door, with replacements - probably as many as a hundred over the five years - taking the seats of MPs who have left. This in turn has allowed for the insidious insertion of the word "deployment" into the South African political lexicon. In particular, the ANC has taken to it with alacrity: for reasons of skill scarcity or political convenience, an ANC Deployment Committee is most active in allocating personnel: switching "cadres" from the civil service to parliament, from provincial assemblies to parliament, from one job to another: this has its own very extensive implications for the construction of an accountable, democratic politics.

Electoral fluidity

Finally - the main theme here - the PR system has also had important implications for what I have termed "electoral prostitution," the list system offering an ideal mechanism for use by party managers in recruiting the "magnets" referred to above. This occurs at a time when the party scene in South Africa is, as we approach the election, extremely fluid. The ANC is now a dominant party, assured of a massive (perhaps two-thirds) majority at the national level, but engaged in serious battles to win the two provinces (Western Cape and Kwazulu-Natal) in which it failed to obtain a popular majority in 1994; stripped of its powers of state patronage, the (now New) NP (NNP) is bleeding support to left and right and, in the eyes of many, is entering a period of terminal decline. After vigorous performances nationally and provincially, the DP seems set to be the particular beneficiary of the drain of votes from the NNP; the IFP seems to have given up all real pretence at being a national party and is concentrating on consolidating its ethnically-mobilized vote in Kwazulu-Natal; and amongst the other competitors, there are two notable new parties, Bantu Holomisa's United Democratic Movement (UDM) and Louis Luyt's Freedom Alliance (FA), which are bidding for votes for the first time. One outcome of this has been the marked increase in the sale of political flesh.

Such is the scale of movement nationally and provincially that this article is not going to attempt to codify all the inter-party movement that is going on. That will be a project best undertaken after the election when all the dust has settled. However, what will usefully bear reproduction is a summary prepared early in April by Alan Fine in Business Day (1 April 1999) and presented here as an accompanying box (see end). From this (by-now-out-of-date) summary, we see that the ANC and the DP are the principal beneficiaries of the defections.

The only question about the ANC's second election victory is, of course, its extent - whilst polls also predict that the DP is likely to at least triple its 1.7 per cent share of the vote it obtained in 1994. It is clearly beginning to capture a large slice of the vote in the white suburbs, even if it is having little luck elsewhere. Meanwhile, the NNP is so clearly heading for a diminished performance that quite a few of its rats are deserting its sinking ship, heading for firmer footing. The DP has been receiving them with open arms. Meanwhile, the IFP - also reckoned to perform worse than in 1994 - is only exporting flesh in one direction (outwards).

These movements were in fact anticipated by the creation of the UDM by Bantu Holomisa and Roelf Meyer. In 1997, Holomisa, it will be recalled, was somewhat abruptly ejected from the ANC for not toeing the party line, and Meyer had given up on attempting to reform the NP from within. This particular combination in the UDM was therefore directed at using their particular personal symbolisms to create a viable opposition party, capable of eventually challenging the ANC, which was drawn from both black and white camps. In short, apart from appealing to those not already politically committed, the UDM was launched with the intention of pulling politicians away from the established parties. And similarly, Louis Luyt - the former Rugby supremo - is promoting his FA as an umbrella under which all opposition forces should gather to pose a collective challenge to ANC "oppression."

The latest opinion polls suggest that it is unlikely that the UDM will achieve its ambition of replacing the NNP as the second largest party in parliament, although it is quite likely to become the official opposition in the Eastern Cape. Meanwhile, Louis Luyt might have been better to confine his very considerable ego to the business and sporting fields. The FA may capture white right wing support from the NNP and the IFP, but it is actually competing with the Freedom Front (FF) amongst a very small segment of the electorate - although it may benefit from Luyt's very considerable financial resources to do a little better than is generally expected. However, what is of particular interest here is the unprincipled opportunism which seems to dictate the dynamic of all these various inter-party movements.

Stealing winners

What the political parties want to do is to steal vote-winners from their opponents' teams and to project the symbolism of their opponents as being in disarray. Take, for instance, the ANC's capture of Bukelwa Mbulawa from the DP and Patrick McKenzie from the NNP. Mbulawa was the DP's only black MP, and her defection sent out the clear symbolic message that the DP was for whites only. Meanwhile, McKenzie - whom the ANC was recently attempting to have expelled from the Western Cape legislature on grounds of having lied to a standing committee - is seen as a "magnet" to attract the Coloured vote in that province, and a clear indication of that party's forthcoming demise. The UDM's recruitment of Sam de Beer was correctly seen as a huge embarrassment to the NNP in Guateng, whilst Mzimela's crossing from the IFP was seen as signifying ANC inroads into KwaZulu-Natal.

Meanwhile, what the politicians usually want is a continued salary. Your party doing badly in the polls? Why not jump ship? But look before you leap, because what you really need is an electable position on a recipient party's list. Again, Mbulawa and McKenzie are key examples. They spent considerable time playing footsie with the ANC before they made the leap. You may rest assured that along with Malcolm Dyani they have bargained themselves electable places on the ANC's final national list. Likewise, William Mnisi's defection to the NNP was postulated upon his likely poor performance in competition for a high place on the DP's national list. The NNP was happy to accommodate anybody reasonable with a black face. In contrast, Tertius Delport's defection from the NNP to the DP is a gamble which may not have come off. He came in only fifth on the DP's provincial list for the National Assembly in recent party elections, a placing likely to deny him election -although Mbulewa's defection to the ANC will have moved him up a peg. And so it goes on. After the election, we will clearly need a systematic analysis of the motivations for defections, and the success or failure that defectors have enjoyed. But for the moment we can usefully ruminate on some of the likely consequences of all this for the nature of South African politics.

First and foremost, politicians who are vulnerable to defeat are being encouraged to sell their wares to the highest bidder. Of course, when they move, they usually do so by reference to their former party having abandoned the noble principles for which they once stood. The usual line is that the party defector has waged an up-hill battle to turn the party around, but at the end of the day has realized he/she is faced by hopeless odds. Meanwhile, he/she has recognized that his/her new party has itself come to embody those principles to which he/she as a politician has always remained firm. Take Bukelwa Mbulawa for example. She commented upon her departure from the DP that she had become disenchanted with its commitment to transformation and that it was no longer the party of Helen Suzman or Mollie Blackburn.

Perhaps so. But Mbulawa's lament might have been more convincing had she stood down from parliament previously, without having negotiated a continuance of salary (both she and McKenzie took up ANC vacancies in the National Assembly). Overall, the search for job security or job gain by party defectors has become so evident a characteristic of the present scene that it is likely to encourage yet further cynicism about the motivation and role of all politicians, few of whom are apparently held in general esteem. Meanwhile, we may question how happy electoral prostitutes will be in their new parties. Unless they have very peculiar qualities to offer, it is unlikely that they will achieve high position or trust.

The second consequence of electoral prostitution is that in their enthusiasm to attract "magnets," parties themselves abandon any pretence to principle. In liberal democratic politics, most political parties are open to all comers, and there is no ideological barrier to entry. But under the plurality system, MPs who have crossed the floor from one party to another at least have to win a party nomination at constituency level. However, under the list system as it is presently operating in South Africa, the party managers are in some cases intervening into internal party democratic processes to secure electable positions for their new recruits. So, for instance, the ANC as the newly dominant party is becoming a home for some politicians like McKenzie who were deemed "sell-outs" during the liberation struggle. But even though we might query Mbulawa's motivation, we may well choose to endorse her judgment of the DP, as under the leadership of Tony Leon it seems to have swung significantly to the right in its bid to capture the NNP's white vote. The DP's attempted absorption of what it apparently appears to deem the NNP's most "magnet"-like politicians - some of whom actually held office under apartheid government - does indeed appear to be a sad departure from liberal tradition.

Which way forward?

Political parties clearly want to maximize their vote, and as the rules stand, perhaps they are sensible to encourage worthwhile opponents to prostitute themselves. ** Nonetheless, there is a real issue here concerning accountability - both of parties and of politicians. The present spate of defections from one party to another has helped reinforce the sense of many voters that politicians need to be made to answer more directly for their actions. Many whites quite openly lament the loss of their "constituency" MPs, and interestingly, two successive surveys of COSATU workers' political attitudes in 1994 and 1998 indicate that they, too, feel strongly that individual politicians should be strictly "mandated" and required to report back regularly to those who elected them. But if MPs and MPLs don't have constituencies, how can they? Since there can be no suggestion that South Africa should abandon the principle of proportionality, so fundamental to the political settlement of opposites, what is needed, perhaps, is some clear thinking - after the election -about how the electoral and parliamentary system might be amended. Here one possible suggestion (amongst many) might be that 200 out of the 400 MPs be elected from multi-member constituencies carved out of the provinces.

Electoral prostitution cannot all be put down to the workings of PR, of course. We have stressed the apparent waning of principle in contemporary South African politics as a factor, and this is a problem that is, self-evidently, not easily amenable to redress by mere constitutional ingenuity. We have also argued that PR has served South Africa well in many ways, not least by ensuring the representation of minorities. And yet there is a problem here: one senses that the quality of South African democracy might be well served after the election by a careful examination of the operation of the present electoral system and the practices that it is encouraging. For the present set-up is unsatisfactory. Amongst other things, it is encouraging prostitution rather than principle, favouring parties which are best placed to offer patronage, and thereby undermining the practice of South African democracy.


** Note, too, an additional reason why this party swapping is occurring most vigorously at election time. The constitution requires that MPs who resign from their political parties are required also to resign from parliament. They cannot "cross the floor" and the party which they leave is entitled to replace them. Party numbers in parliament stay constant. There are costs to this: the consequences of the revolving door to parliament are likely to become dangerous to democracy if MPs and MPLs continue to leave the national assembles and provincial assemblies at the rate which has occurred since 1994. It disrupts continuity, depletes the cohorts of experienced representatives, and thereby reduces the chance of the legislatures holding national and provincial governments to account. Yet, as Alan Fine ( Business Day 1 April 1999) points out, the bar against floor-crossing is defensible. On the whole, the large bulk of voters vote for a party and not an individual, and if MPs or MPLs were allowed to cross the floor without immediate penalty, the will of the electorate could be sabotaged. Recall, in this respect, the capacity of governments in Africa to establish parliamentary dictatorships via the expedient of enticing opposition MPs into their ranks.


Inter-Party Movement immediately prior to the 1999 Election

DP to ANC:   Bukelwa Mbulawa    MP

IFP to ANC:  Dumisani Khuzwayo

NNP to ANC:  Patrick McKenzie   MEC
             David Chuenyane    MP
             John Gogotya       MP

PAC to ANC:  Malcolm Dyani      MP

ANC to DP:   Daron Manyashe     Councillor

IFP to DP:   Belinda Barrett    MPL

NNP to DP:   Nick Koornhof      MEC
             Pauline Cupido     MPL 
             Glen Carelse       MPL
             Tertius Delport    MPL
             Chris Wyngaard     MPL
             Donald Lee         MP 
             Bill Stubbe        Councillor

FF to DP:    Carl Werth         High Commissioner
             Philip de Wet      Councillor 
             Wickus Theron      Councillor

ADCP to FA:  Theunis Botha      MPL

IFP to FA:   Kieren O'Malley    MP

NNP to FA:   Sakkei Blanche     MP
             Thys Terblanche    Councillor
             Kraai van Niekerk  Former Minister

DP to NNP:   William Mnisi      MPL

ANC to PAC:  Desmond Strydom    Councillor

NNP to UDM:  Sam de Beer        Former NNP 
                                Gauteng leader
             Gerhard Koornhof   MPL

IPF to UDM:  Sipo Mzimela       MP


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