Integration of existing systems can curb crosstitution, or it can simply be scrapped

Eric Naki

Eric Naki

The floor-crossing window - a window of opportunism indeed - will open on Saturday.

The first 15 days of September will see tensions rising to the highest levels among political parties in parliament, the provincial legislatures and municipal councils.

It will be another circus where politicians will hurl verbal missiles at one another in a game they started themselves for themselves - not one by the people for the people.

It is opportunism in practice because elected politicians can defect from the parties that deployed them to others, form new parties or forge alliances.

It is a betrayal of trust for the losing party and its voters who put their trust in the person to represent them.

Like shepherds counting their sheep, some parties have already started counting heads - identifying and expelling those they believe might defect. They know that if they don't act now, they will lose their hard-won seats to another party.

Most of the time the pre-emptive strike is used by some leaders to settle old political scores against their own comrades who posed a threat to their leadership. Some of the vulnerable smaller parties, prone to losing a lot during the open-window periods, forced their members to sign a pledge not to defect.

This game, started because of an amendment contained in Schedule 6 of the Constitution, resembles that of pupils who start throwing paper missiles at each other when a teacher leaves the class to go to the loo. The game becomes so noisy it disturbs the principal who tip-toes to the classroom and as he opens the door amid the chaos, a fist-sized paper ball hits him on the forehead.

He is embarrassed and angry. There is a deathly silence. The game is over and everybody pretends to be busy.

But who is to blame? The rowdy children, the teacher for abandoning the class to answer a call of nature or the principal for entering the class without warning. They are all to blame.

As the old saying goes, prevention is better than cure. There should be ground rules that prevent misbehaviour by school children so that the teacher is able to go to the loo whenever nature calls and the headmaster does not have to tiptoe to quell the noise.

Some say floor crossing is democracy in action and is practised in all democracies in the West.

UDM leader Bantu Holomisa, whose party was once bruised by defections, argued recently in a radio talkshow that "floor crossing must trigger a by-election".

In other words, if an MP, MPL or councillor defects, the seat must be contested in a by-election or voters must be given an opportunity to speak with their feet and punish the culprits using the ballot box.

But this can only happen in an ideal situation, comrade Bantu, because members carry their seats on their shoulders to the party to which they are defecting, leaving no empty seat to be contested.

I am not sure if ACDP leader Kenneth Meshoe is on the right track in closing the door on defectors to his party. Perhaps believing that betraying voters is a sin, he is not interested in crosstitutes. But if members leave his party for another, will he open the door for them to go? That's for Meshoe to answer.

I tend to agree with those who say that floor crossing should be allowed only within the political parties represented in parliament or other levels, not to back door newcomers.

The Freedom Front Plus, a party that favours this scenerio, seems to have been studying the situation for some time. The party has warned that floor crossing should not be used for solving short-term problems, referring to the DA that pushed for the motion.

Pieter Mulder, leader of the FF Plus, said: "We also predicted that in the long run it would only be to the advantage of the ANC and would be to the disadvantage of democracy in South Africa. That is exactly what has happened."

Under the provisions of the Act, people can defect as a group, form another party, register with the Independent Electoral Commission and be represented in parliament or council without the trouble of having to contest an election. In other words, you don't need a mandate from voters to represent them.

It is my contention that political parties that arrived in the legislatures and council chambers after floor crossing are illegitimate. Those surrogates only represent themselves and their jackets.

This is the fallacy of the proportional representation (PR) system - where the party is the king that decides who must be on the parliamentary list so as to represent it. In the process, accountability to the voters is lost. Politicians become loyal to the party and not to the voters. So our political landscape is characterised by patronage to leaders and influential individuals within the party.

The time to change the PR system in favour of the constituency system or a mix of the two is now.

In a mixed system, there will be some level of accountability to the voters by those elected at constituency level while the party will still be in control in determining the PR list. This is a good compromise.

During its recent national policy conference, the ANC came up with a two-pronged resolution on the matter: That floor crossing should be retained as an interim measure pending further evaluation, and the party NEC must develop guidelines for its political management to ensure it does not substitute mass work.

The other proposal is that floor crossing must be scrapped and that the ANC should not accept defectors this year. Instead, there must be an opportunity for political party coalitions without legislating for it.

This last proposal reinforces the view that the dreaded floor crossing will be scrapped altogether after this window time, and rightly so.