Sortition advocacy in South Africa

In an op-ed on the South African website Thought Leader, Bronya Hirschman writes about sortition.

Governance re-imagined: Is politics without parties possible?

Sortition offers inclusiveness and creates a diverse, non-partisan government and it asks citizens to take responsibility for their governance.

In 2021, media outlets (SABC News, IOL and Bloomberg, among others) reported that voter turnout was at an all-time low. Professor Joleen Steyn-Knotze, of the Human Sciences Research Council, attributes this to voter dissatisfaction. Research by The Conversation concurs and puts low voter turnout down to “individual and administrative barriers, followed by complaints about service delivery and corruption, uninterest or disillusionment, and a lack of political alignment”.

But it appears that low voter turnout is a global trend. Elections, as David van Reybrouck explains in Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, were, after all, designed to keep power in the hands of the elite. Thus it would seem we, as a society, have lost faith in the political process. But what does this mean? In effect, we, the people, are just a few people — the rest, a bit busy to be bothered.

The social contract

In recent times elections, once considered the foundation of democracy, have in certain academic circles come under attack. There are problems with democracy and social decision-making. No system is perfect.

In The Social Contract, philosopher Rousseau wrote of an implicit agreement between a people and their elected state. Citizens give up a portion of their earnings and liberties that they may live in a civilised society and have their more pressing needs taken care of. But what happens when your government breaks the social contract? How do you prevent boundless corruption, empire-building and limitless bureaucratic inefficiency?

It’s called sortition, and it is not a new concept.


The ancient Greeks used election by lot (sortition) to avoid electoral races and posturing and provide a regular turnover of public officials. Sortition functioned in the Athenian democracy for more than two centuries. Last century, Australian philosopher John Burnheim described the term “demarchy” to explain a political system sans political parties. In its place are randomly selected groups of decision-makers.

Burnheim’s sortition or demarchy offers several advantages to electoral politics: the dissolution of huge state bureaucracies, increased agile thinking or cognitive diversity, population representation, fairness, anti-corruption, empowerment, allegiance to principles rather than a political party and of course, avoiding the formation of a new social elite.

2 Responses

  1. It is nice to see somebody on this blog realize that sortition comes out of the elimination of parties, not the other way around. Athens had outlawed parties for over a century before it figured out how to apply sortition.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. […] and discussions of the subject that were mentioned this year on Equality-by-Lot included items from South Africa, the UK: 1, 2, the US: 1, 2 3, 4, 5, 6, Australia, Malaysia, Texas, US, France, Ireland, Utah, US, […]


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