By Gavin Ruch

For two weeks in July, I had the pleasure of accompanying scholars in Southern Oregon University’s Honors College on an educational field trip to the Republic of South Africa. The objective of our travel was to learn about the operations and benefits that different forms of democracy afford us. It gave me an opportunity to examine the political institutions of South Africa, to see what we Americans can learn from them.

While it is correct to say that both the United States and South Africa apply forms of democratic governance, the structure and institutions differ in fundamental ways. This is important for American readers to understand, to avoid the possible assumption that our political structure is the standard by which the world’s nations must adhere, in order to effectively govern in a democratic way. The executive, legislative and judicial spheres of government of the South African State are, on the whole, dissimilar to ours.

Like the U.S., the legislative branch in South Africa is composed of two houses (bicameral), but unlike our congressional system, South Africans have a Parliament, which is located in Cape Town, one of South Africa’s three capital cities. The lower and more powerful house is known as the National Assembly, and the upper and less powerful house is known as the National Council of Provinces.

There are currently 400 members of Parliament (MPs) working in the National Assembly while there are 90 delegates, representing the nine provinces, in the National Council of Provinces. By comparison, we have 435 representatives in the House of Representatives and 100 senators. In terms of total constituent size, there are about 56 million citizens of South Africa and 323 million in the U.S.

The way by which South African MPs are elected is different than how we elect representatives and senators. In South Africa, MPs are voted into office on the basis of proportional representation, while, here in the United States, lawmakers are voted into office on the basis of single-member districts.

In proportional representation electoral systems, voters are provided with a list of several competing political parties. When the electoral process has run its course, the resulting legislative demographic proportionately mirrors how each district voted. A proportionate number of candidates from the African National Congress Party (ANC), for example, would be elected into the National Assembly based on the percentage of voters who voted for that particular party.

This is in stark contrast to our single-member district electoral system, where in Oregon’s Second Congressional District, in November 2018, we will choose among candidates representing multiple parties.

The executive branch of the South African government is similar to ours, in that the executive is a president, currently President Jacob Zuma of the ANC. As in the U.S., the president of South Africa is both the head of government and the head of state. The president lives in Pretoria, the second of South Africa’s three capitals. The president’s duties include, but are not limited to, signing or vetoing legislation, choosing cabinet members, and in extreme cases, dissolving the National Assembly.

Unlike our system, however, it is not the people who put the president in power, but rather, the party that controls the legislature. In parliamentary systems, the legislature can choose to vote out the president in what is known as a “vote of no confidence.” On Aug. 8, Zuma survived a vote of no confidence by a vote of 198-177 (nine members abstained).

Zuma has been losing popularity with South African electorate, in part due to his close affiliation with the Gupta family and accusations of corruption.  In 2015, just one-third of South Africans said they trust Zuma “a lot” or “somewhat.”

Regarding the Judicial Branch, the Appeals Court is located in Bloemfontein, the third of South Africa’s three capitals, and the more powerful Constitutional Court (similar to our Supreme Court) is in Johannesburg. The Constitutional Court holds the power of judicial review, which means that it has the capacity to review legislation, or executive decisions, and overturn them if the court deems them unconstitutional.

While there are a few nuanced differences between democracy in South Africa and the United States, these nuances are important. These microscopic differences in institutions translate to macroscopic differences in how political events ensue within these two nations.

The most important lesson I learned from my analysis of the two political systems, is that democracy can take various forms and there is no “one size fits all.” Taking into consideration demographics, culture and historical context, the “best democratic system” is one that works most effectively and efficiently for the benefit of its people. More important, regardless of country, a healthy democracy relies on a well-informed and engaged citizenry and competent leaders who are honest and possess a high degree of integrity.

— Gavin Ruch is a political science major at Southern Oregon University.