South Africa's flawed democratic structure

01 October 2008 Robert W Vivian, University of the Witwatersrand

Professor Robert Vivian believes that the recent political upheavel is the consequence of flaws in South Africa's democratic structure. This structure was tried and rejected in the UK and rejected from the outset in the USA, making it somewhat strange that it was intruduced in South Africa. The flaws will be discussed in a series of articles of which this is the first.

The relationship between forms of government and economic outcomes is the basis of what is called the Economics of Public Choice. It is widely believed that the general economic well-being and advance of a country is greatly influenced by the form of government. It was, for example, believed that introducing one-man-one-vote (universal suffrage) in South Africa would result in a better life for all. One-man-one-vote is, however, only part of the equation. The structure in which the one-man-one-vote is used, the democratic structure, is another.

What are we voting for?

Stated simply, the question to be posed and answered is: “In an election, what is South Africans voting for?” The answer is that in a South African election, people vote for a political party to run the country. Historically, this is not what a country votes for.

The flaw in South Africa’s current system will most easily be understood if the South African structure is examined against the backround of the constitutional history of Britain (and later America).

Historical context

Although many countries in the world have universal suffrage, there are many different constitutional structures. In most instances, the structures which exist were not put into place by design, but evolved.

Polybius (204 BC), a Roman writer, noted that society consists of three orders (or estates) - the rule of one, the few and the many. For example, in a company there is the Chief Executive Officer, the board of directors and the employees. In a church there is the minister, the elders and the congregation. In the army it is the general, commanders and troops. In Rome there was the Emperor, the Senate and the Plebs. In England, there was the king, the lords and the Commons.

Formation of societies

These three always appear in all societies. The most fundamental and earliest structure in the formation of societies is that of individuals living in small family units.

However, individuals living by themselves are vulnerable and can do little to protect their lives, liberty or property against a hoard of lawless people. To protect property, liberty and life, people form societies. There is, of course, a problem in that this society may well itself take the life, liberty and property of the persons it is supposed to protect. This happened, for example, to the Jews in Nazi Germany and to the property of white farmers in Zimbabwe.So, beyond forming a society is required, constitutional safeguards are also needed.

In the early stages of society the protection was a matter of force. A leader arises (the one) and with his band of commanders (the few) he organises an army (the many) and physically they fight off the threat. The victorious society is just too grateful to support their leader, who becomes the permanent lord. As areas develop a number of lords become established and the various lords combine under one of the lords, the king. As a general rule neither kings nor lords are elected. When a king or lord died, the eldest son succeeded them.


Much of the activities of the old kings were devoted to warfare, often for the benefit of the king. War is an expensive business and increasingly the king began to make demands for support on the lords. One of the most famous English clashes between the king and his lords occurred in 1215, which led to the signing of the Magna Carta which entrenched several fundamental principles of no support (taxation) without consent.

In England there never was a divine right to tax. The idea that a king had the right to be king led to the idea of the Divine Right of Kings; kings held power by the grace of God, not man. Kings increasingly were seen as being responsible for more than physical protection and slowly the idea of a government, in the modern sense evolved.

Law and justice

The king and his lords dispensed justice. Manor courts evolved to deal with minor matters, with the lord of the manor being responsible for dispensing justice at a local level.

There was very little need for making of laws perse. Everyone knew the laws. These existed as the Common Law, which became very ingrained in society. For example, no one needed to pass a law to make murder or theft crimes. The institution of an immutable Common Law, and the belief in a legal process, posed a substantial constraint on the actions of the king and lords.

This system was not ideal - the king and the lords were the main beneficiaries of the system. The rest, the Plebs, did not, and in fact, could not, do too well in the system.


So where do elections come into the picture and more importantly, for what did people vote?

As society got larger a number of things happened. The ability of the lords to resist the king by force, ceased to be an option. Secondly, a much wider range of competing interests existed which needed to be satisfied or at least taken into consideration. Thirdly, the Commons, the third estate, acquired a voice. The king could meet with his Lords (or a small committee of Lords), since they were not too numerous. He could not meet with the Commons. A system was thus needed to give the Commons a voice.

Elections thus played a part in sending representatives to the Commons. Neither the king nor lords were elected, only members of the Commons.The Commons only assembled when called, or summoned, by the king.


The single most important function of the Commons was to vote funding for the king and his government. The king had no inherent power to raise taxes. The Commons in agreeing to the taxes would usually extract some reciprocal benefit from the king. In this way the king could be kept under control.

The Commons could not make any decision (or law) which was binding on the king or the lords. If the Commons made a decision the lords and the king had to agree. The legislation had to pass from the Commons to the lords to the king. These three institutions, acting together,constituted Parliament.

Protecting the people

Historically the most important function of the Commons was to protect society from the excessive demands from the king. If the king did not behave himself they would not vote any money.

Thus, elections were never to elect persons or a party to run the country. In the next article we will see what happened when the Commons took over the running of the country and how and why this was rejected.

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