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A referendum on land reform in SA?

The Brexit fiasco would suggest not.

There are many valid reasons for calling for a deepening of democracy in South Africa, despite the fact that the country has regular free elections as well as constitutional mechanisms designed to promote public participation in lawmaking.

The major flaw in SA’s system of government is often said to be the manner in which the electoral system – uninhibited open-list proportional representation – has shaped its party system.

The usual complaint is that individual members of parliament or provincial legislatures are accountable to party bosses, rather than to the electors. Accordingly, there are often demands that the electoral system should be reformed via the introduction of constituencies. In that way, public representatives would need to be sensitive to the concerns of constituents, as well as to the demands of those above them in the party hierarchy.

But the call for electoral reform has constantly stalled, largely because list-system proportional representation has guaranteed the ANC – which has governed the country since 1994 – majorities at national and most provincial levels. Thus, it is not in the party’s interests to change the system.

One danger of this is that there may be a populist call for the introduction of referenda. For instance, if the Constitutional Court was to rule that any proposed amendment to the constitution regarding the expropriation of land without compensation was unconstitutional, there might be a demand that the issue be put directly to the people. And there are many within the governing ANC who might agree.

Superficially, the idea might have its attractions. Why should the Constitutional Court be entitled to frustrate the popular will? The answer is that, although referenda may have their place in the toolbox of democracy (as in California, where referenda concerning a variety of matters are regularly put to voters at elections), they can be easily misused, as proved emphatically by fascist dictators in Europe in the 1930s.

However, we need to look no further than Brexit – the upcoming withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union – for an example of where a referendum has been arrogantly and thoughtlessly entered into with alarming consequences.

Brexit: A referendum for all the wrong reasons 

Britain has got into the Brexit mess because of a longstanding division about membership of the European Union (EU) within the ruling Conservative Party. The then prime minister David Cameron made the fateful decision in 2016 to hold a national referendum on continuing membership of the EU, on the presumption that a ‘Yes’ vote would win, and that this would silence his right wing for a generation.

His plan went terribly wrong. For a host of reasons, the electorate chose to give the political establishment a bloody nose by voting ‘No’, albeit narrowly; of those who participated, around 52% voted to leave the EU, while 48% voted to stay.

Humiliated, Cameron resigned. Theresa May took over as PM and committed to negotiating Britain’s exit. Fatefully, she held an election to strengthen her hand, but lost her majority in parliament. After two years, the chickens are coming home to roost.

Holding a referendum on a highly contentious issue can deepen political divides rather than bridge them, as Brexit has shown. Picture: Simon Dawson, Bloomberg

It’s not inconceivable that May will be able to edge the deal she has negotiated for Britain to leave the EU through parliament. However, most observers reckon that parliament will reject it, as it pleases neither the majority of the ‘leavers’ nor the ‘remainers’. In which case, Britain is approaching a constitutional crisis.

One way out of the crisis, apparently gaining momentum, is for parliament to vote for the holding of another referendum. The justification put forward is that now the British people have had two years to gain a greater understanding of the consequences of leaving the EU, and that realistic options (no deal, May’s deal, further negotiation or stay within the EU) are now on the table, they should be entitled to decide.

Read: Second Brexit referendum gaining traction as way to end gridlock 

However, if parliament opts for another referendum, it will have to do so over May’s head. She routinely calls the 2016 referendum “the greatest exercise in democracy in British history”.

May insists that the referendum’s result must be honoured – despite the fact that domestically and internationally there is widespread opinion and evidence that Britain’s decision to leave the EU has turned out to be a terrible mistake.

Lessons for South Africa 

There are four lessons South Africans can learn from the Brexit fiasco.

One, resorting to referenda on highly contentious issues is as likely to deepen political polarisation as to resolve it.

Two, if referenda are to become part of a country’s democratic machinery, it is vital that their constitutional status is established prior to their use. In Britain, the constitutional status of referenda has never been established.

Britain calls itself a parliamentary democracy. But resorting to referenda implies that popular sovereignty must trump parliamentary democracy. However, because Britain does not have a written constitution, it does not have a Constitutional Court to resolve the matter.

Three, it is vital to establish the rules for the game before referenda are used. In Britain, successive governments have failed to establish what sort of issues may be put to a referendum. Likewise, there has been a failure to consider whether referenda results should be determined by absolute majorities or requisite majorities. Should fundamental constitutional changes be effected with the support of just 50.1% of those who vote for them?

Fourth, should the results of referenda be considered final? What happens if it appears that voters want to change their minds? Would a repeat referendum be a negation (the overturning of a democratic result) or a reassertion of democracy (a going back to the people)?

Read: Brexit delay: SA may need to prepare contingency plans

All this implies that referenda should not be entered into lightly and without careful consideration. South Africans are often frustrated by their politicians and might like to overrule them. Indeed, there is probably a popular majority for such issues as bringing back capital punishment, despite the Constitutional Court having ruled the latter unconstitutional.

Referenda could have their place under South Africa’s constitution, but only if they deepen constitutional democracy and don’t undermine it.The Conversation

Roger Southall is a professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. The original article can be found here.

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The ANC hasn’t got the best solutions to problems and neither has it got the best track record of successful implementations. In fact, all it has is the majority of the votes. That is the dilemma that will continue to face this country for decades to come and which will hamper its development.

A referendum would be interesting. Can be easily added to the ballot papers later this year. While they’re at it, also ask the public’s opinion on the death penalty, euthenasia and e-tolls.

So, Roger, just to be clear, you would only want referenda where you’d agree with the outcome?

Replying to Inspector Bucket: But of course! Why would the others interest me at all?

The problem with Brexit is that the establishment are yet to accept the result & again here it is mentioned the slight majority implying that it could go the other way next time. Referendums are by their nature a once off. True democracy is the will of the people.

More important than referendums is voter education. The weakness in the democracies across Southern Africa is the lack of understanding of voting and democracy, especially the rural voters, who are fooled and misled by the liberation parties.

The liberation parties, in a sense, capture democracy thus.

I don’t think a referendum makes sense either in the land reform case or brexit because the amount of data available is very limited. As in the case of the UK, I suspect a lot of people would change their vote given they are likely to be unemployed and poorer for it, but this was not the propaganda bandied about by the leavers.

The same would happen with land reform, we have a largely uneducated population that believes anything that is told to them. The EFF and Zuma would send bus loads of propaganda agents to every rural village in SA to get the full nationalization of land, it would mean they have much better access to the cookie jar.

“She routinely calls the 2016 referendum “the greatest exercise in democracy in British history”.” May’s reluctance to have another vote is telling, it is because she fears that brexit would lose which would mean, she loses ala Cameron. What about the vote in the late 70s (i think)? Does that not count. Shameful

Doltish article and pointless.
In ZA EWC is a racial issue.
The result is foregone: 4.5 mil against EWC, 50million for, give or take a few mil.

Public participation in SA politics is only a tick box. They will swing it their way no matter what be it ANC, DA doesn’t make a difference. Same as signing new laws in parliament its only a yes box.

There is an elephant in the living room. Most people in SA vote for the ANC. By any reasonable objective standards, the ANC is an incompetent, corrupt criminal organisation. The ongoing support the ANC receives at the ballot box is nothing less than a savage indictment on the morality of the voting public.

Fast forward to a referendum on EWC. The issue of whether to steal land via legislation is being put to the morally bankrupt who stand to gain something for nothing complete with a “democratic process its-the-peoples’-will” rubber stamp.

I cannot think of one good reason the ANC will not do this.

In 1994 we became a country with a negotiated “deal” on how to take SA forward. (This was followed, in due course, by the constiturion which reflected this “deal”.)
This negotiated “deal” meant that compromise was agreed and accepted by all parties and that we would have a non-racial dispensation – eventually.
I can therefore see no future for any referendum where a vote along racial lines can undermine the “deal”.
And make no mistake if a referendum was worded: should land of whites be taken away – there will be only one outcome 80% – yes.
The ANC is playing a dangerous game with the constitution and a referendum on racially
biased questions will be a disaster.

Democracy? According to the 2011 census there is 76% Blacks and 9% Whites in SA. So thats like 8 wolves and 1 sheep voting on what’s for lunch. …How does a sheep go about promoting a vegetarian dieet to wolves?

While a referendum seems like a good idea I believe that people will still vote along party and racial lines because we are still a very immature people and democracy.

Birth of religion do happens when looking backwards in human history.

South Africa had a Brexit referendum back in 1960 that was very close. Turns out, not the best of decisions by the general public.

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