Ill-treatment of minorities will end only if consensus becomes the foundation of our institutions

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Africa is not short of ill-treated minorities. While on this part of the continent, race and nationalism dominate the political scene, ethnicity is a bigger problem in many other countries. It was ethnic conflict which led to the worst genocide in African history; it was ethnic conflict that motivated Robert Mugabe’s brutal massacre of the Ndebele, and even in South Africa it was ethnicity that drove the violence between the IFP and ANC.

This means that even if Andile Mngxitama, the leader of the radical Black First Land First group, gets his wish and all whites are expelled from the country, we will still likely have strife. The economic consequences would guarantee that. This persistent problem of minority oppression, often stemming from envy, begs for electoral reform that would take Africa in general and South Africa in particular closer to a more consensus-based system.

A multi-party system has the advantage of giving representation to minorities, but representation does not mean influence over government policy. The Constitution has the Bill of Rights which protects the individual, as well as elements of federalism with reserved powers for provinces and municipalities. In addition, the judiciary and Chapter 9 institutions provide an additional check. The biggest flaw however lies in the relationship between legislature and executive.

The legislature is always controlled by the majority party and they appoint the executive. This system clearly allows parliament the possibility of undermining minority rights. The other checks and balances are put in jeopardy by this system. With a big enough majority for the ruling party, the Constitution can be changed.

Following the Constitutional Court judgement on the case brought by the New Nation Movement, parliament has been tasked with coming up with an amendment to the Electoral Act that entitles a person to stand for election regardless of party affiliation. This is an important step towards greater representation for minorities, but the devil is in the detail. The obvious thing to do (given also the deadline set by the Constitutional Court) is to carry forward the work of the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission which proposed a new electoral system for South Africa in the early part of the century.

Yet electoral reform on its own is not enough. To avoid the strife caused by the oppression of minorities on the rest of the continent, and starting to manifest here in the case of immigrants and racial minorities, our institutions have to be geared towards consensus. This is opposed to the current system built on majoritarianism.

The constitutional safeguards in such a system are clearly not enough to stop those who are determined to hate. Consensus has received some bad press recently, after President Ramaphosa’s endless consensus-building. That is because his ‘consensus-building’ is really coalition-building. There are many voices in society opposed to continued bailouts for SOEs, yet the consensus President has forged ahead with the bailouts, in most cases without bothering to consult Parliament before the decision is made.

The first place where consensus should be required is in changing the Constitution. The question then becomes, what does practical consensus mean? There are some proposals that have been put forward around building consensus among large groups. Mathematically it is possible if fewer and fewer representatives are chosen at each level. The ancient Ashanti Kingdom based around modern Ghana had such a system.

That particular idea would likely be too radical to gain any acceptance in South Africa, yet it would accord with the values of governance held by many cultures in South Africa. These values are ones we have often failed to live up to, even during the pre-colonial period of Africa’s history. Max Gluckman, an anthropologist, argued that Africa’s history is filled with examples of people fighting tyranny.

Indeed, the story of Shaka Zulu as told by Zulus among themselves is also a warning against oppression. Shaka was warned that he was destroying the nation by a visitor, at the height of the brutality following his mother’s death. What followed was a plot instigated by his aunt, who was worried about the brutality of her nephew.

The Bambatha rebellion was a revolt as much against the Chiefs as against the British colonial authorities. Bambatha himself initially supported paying the poll tax, to the point where he had to excuse himself from an appointment at which the tax would have been paid to the magistrate. What modern day African nationalists miss is that the Chiefs were the ones who had to collect the poll tax from their people, or at least ensure their people paid the tax.

People have always longed for liberty on this part of the continent. Institutions built on majoritarianism are not in tune with the beautiful diversity of Africa. The fact that most Africans have elevated melanin levels is the least significant thing about the many people of this continent.

A step in the right direction would be requiring every constitutional change to be approved by a majority of voters in all 52 districts in the country, or some other suitable division like provinces. However it is done, moving towards consensus as a basis for decision-making is always a step in the right direction. It also highlights the fact that decentralisation is not merely a matter of preference about who dishes out your oppression. It is crucial to build consensus-based institutions. This becomes impractical on a large scale.

The history of Africa cries out for a future in which it truly belongs to all who live in it, not simply those who have managed to put together a temporary majority.

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