Herman Mashaba. Picture: SOWETAN
Herman Mashaba. Picture: SOWETAN

ALL the municipal councils have now been constituted following the local government elections, with councillors taking their seats according to a formula that the ANC slammed as being unfair.

"There’s a strange phenomenon … in this election: in a number of areas where we have a majority of wards, we end up being smaller," ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said after the election results were announced.

He used Nelson Mandela Bay and Johannesburg as examples where the ANC took a majority of the wards in the metros, but ended up with a smaller number of seats. "We are asking: this proportion, which is half of the seats, why is it used in overall seats? It is an issue which is open for discussion."

The Code for SA Data Journalism Academy conducted an analysis of the seat allocation in municipalities throughout the country and found minority parties clinched representation in councils where they failed to get the minimum required votes to get a seat.

The quota is calculated based on the total votes cast for all parties, divided by the total number of seats available in the municipality, minus any independent ward candidates and ward councillors elected from parties that did not submit a proportional representation (PR) list.

The number one is then added to the total and fractions are disregarded, giving a quota. The votes cast for each party are divided by the quota to provide the "first round allocation of seats".

Open Society Foundation SA researcher Derek Luyt predicts that as a result of the proportional representation system, ward committees will become "absolute battlegrounds" in the future, as parties that won many wards, but do not control a council exploit them to build support.

He says schedule 1 of the Municipal Structures Act, which explains how the quotas are determined in each municipality, is interpreted differently by different political parties, especially after the August 3 election.

The schedule says the total number of valid votes for each party and each ward candidate representing a party must be divided by the quota of votes for a seat, which gives the party the number of seats to which it is entitled.

"This type of situation could become a source of political instability, as parties could quite rightly point out that the coalition or alliance with most seats does not actually have the support of the majority of voters. Schedule 1 could easily be rewritten to prevent this situation arising in future," Luyt says.

According to the Code For SA Data Journalism Academy’s analysis, only 59 municipalities did not allocate seats to minority parties that failed to obtain the minimum valid votes required for a seat.

In municipalities such as Bitou, Thulamela, Rustenburg, Buffalo City Metro, and all 12 of Gauteng’s municipalities, parties that got less than the minimum quota received seats.

The result of the formula is that even minority parties that do not meet the minimum quota of valid votes get seats allocated to them in councils. The remainder of valid votes counted for ward seats are then ranked from highest to lowest to allocate any seats that remain after the first round allocation. This is called the "second round allocation". This then provides the total party seats.

The system is not new, and is unlikely to dramatically change the outcome of a local government election, and is not to blame for the ANC’s loss in key metros.

However, the system’s tendency to crowd out the ANC’s majority has vexed the party’s leadership, which claims it gives smaller opposition parties a voice at the expense of the ANC.

"We killed the constituency portion altogether and put proportional representation on this level. On local government, the choice was a combination of half ward and half PR. The performance on wards must be allocated and closed, and then PR must be on behalf of PR seats. Otherwise you must say there is no ward system at all," Mantashe says.

He disputes that he takes exception to the system because it no longer benefits the ANC the way it once did. When asked how the ANC hoped to change the electoral system, he asked that the party be given space to decide what to do.

"The issue is whether the system is correct or not. We are questioning whether the system works. Where in local government we have accepted a ward system, you can’t kill it on the basis of seats," Mantashe says.

DA federal executive chairman James Selfe says the system, exists to cater for minority views that might not have been represented.

"Gwede is the only one who seems to be upset about the system, because it no longer works in his favour. This electoral system has been with us for a long time and is designed to be as inclusive as possible," he says.

"But while parties and organisations got representation they were entitled to, there was an opportunity for other parties to get into what is called the best remainder."

Electoral Commission of SA spokeswoman Kate Bapela says the electoral system for local government elections in SA is a mix of the ward constituency system, together with the proportional representation system, and based on overall proportionality.

"The proportional representation electoral system is designed on the principle of inclusivity, rather than exclusivity, of contestants.

"Accordingly, smaller parties that do not secure sufficient votes in the first round allocation may qualify to be allocated a seat in the second round allocation," Bapela says.

Bapela says the electoral system is prescribed in legislation governing municipal elections including the Municipal Structures Act and, as such, the National Assembly would need to amend the legislation in order to change it.

• With Daniela Lépiz of the Code For SA Data Journalism Academy