I was born and raised in South Africa but my father is Swiss (and my mother is South African). As a result of my heritage and close family ties I occasionally follow Swiss politics. One aspect of the Swiss political landscape that I have always admired, and try to persuade my fellow South Africans to consider, is the idea of direct democracy, as opposed to indirect (or representative) democracy, which is the system we follow here.
Most South Africans are familiar with the system of indirect democracy, where the people vote for representatives who then vote in laws and policies on their behalf. This system is meant to prevent majority tyranny because the representatives are supposed to pass the best laws on behalf of everybody after they have considered all the facts and objections. However, in reality, politicians are only human and like everyone else, tend to act in their own self-interest. History has demonstrated time and time again the world over that elected officials invariably pass laws that cater for the needs of favoured special interest groups. We in South Africa have learned like people elsewhere that the only time politicians really pay any attention to the masses they supposedly represent is just before elections.
To complicate matters, in this country we have the peculiar situation where the ruling party is in bed with two other ‘parties’ that would not otherwise enjoy such power. My colleague Leon Louw has pointed out that as a result of this situation, the ruling ANC has effectively lost its identity. I think he has a point, and I have suggested that the only way to overcome this unholy alliance is a separation of powers, but it is not the purpose of this piece to argue the details of that particular issue. The point of this piece is to consider the merits of adopting direct democracy in South Africa.
Direct democracy, where people vote on policy initiatives directly, allows for three forms of political action: The referendum, the initiative and the recall. The referendum prevents legislators from amending the constitution without the permission of the people, and allows the people to reject new laws passed by the legislators – it is effectively “the people’s veto”. For example, anoptionalreferendum might require that ten per cent of the electorate sign a petition, forcing a direct vote on an issue. In other cases, a referendum might be automatic. If, for example, a proposed law requires a change to the constitution, in a special election a simple or two-thirds majority is needed to throw out the amendment or law.
The initiative is like a referendum, except that it is used by the people to propose a law or constitutional amendment, or to repeal an old law. Once again those people who want a law passed or repealed must get sufficient signatures on a petition to have their proposal put to a popular vote. The recall is used to call a special election to remove unpopular officials and judges before their term expires. For example, if newly elected town councillors start passing disagreeable laws one month into their term, the residents of the area do not have to suffer for the remainder of the councillors’ term. Rather, they can petition for an immediate recall election, throw the offending councillors out, and replace them with new ones. The threat of the recall has a disciplining effect on politicians and effectively prevents them from introducing laws that some may find objectionable.
Some critics of direct democracy argue that the majority of South Africans are simply not knowledgeable enough to make the types of decisions required to run a particular area. But this is just a racist ruse. In Switzerland, ordinary people have been making decisions on difficult and contentious issues for hundreds of years, and their track record for making more fitting decisions is better than that of the vast majority of governments in advanced countries, and particularly of those in developing countries. The most important advantage of direct democracy is that it enables people to repeal laws if they discover they have made a bad decision.
Federal referendums are common in Switzerland because the constitution sets explicit limits on federal power. Any major act requires a constitutional amendment, which thenautomaticallyrequires a referendum. On the other hand, not many bills passed by the central government are rejected by theoptional referendum, which may be called up to six months after any new law is enacted. The reason for this is that the cabinet goes to considerable lengths to avoid an optional referendum. Just the threat of a referendum introduces an important check on government. Swiss politicians spend considerable time and effort in accommodating as many interest groups as possible – and redrafting legislation until no group is so unhappy that it will seek a referendum rejecting the law. Those consulted include labour unions, consumer groups, big business, small traders, language groups, religious and regional interests, and political parties.
The Swiss also vote directly on a range of local issues close to their hearts and pockets. For example, they decide on issues from who the school principal should be, what languages should be taught in school, whether a new road or bridge should be built, to what time prostitutes should start trading.
If instituted in South Africa, direct democracy would give hope to every person living in this country. The ordinary person who feels totally ignored by government would no longer have to feel so helpless. With direct democracy, the people would have the power as opposed to only the elites. If direct democracy were adopted in this country, all South Africans would be able to truly enjoy their hard won freedoms