South Africa: Electoral System

Extracted from: Susan Booysen & Grant Masterson 2009 "Chapter 11: South Africa" IN Denis Kadima and Susan Booysen (eds) Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa 1989-2009: 20 Years of Multiparty Democracy, EISA, Johannesburg, 399-402.

Contemporary acceptance and continuous debate about South Africa's electoral system is irrevocably tied to both the legacies of the pre-democratic past and problems of representation and accountability that have been endemic to the application of the closed-list PR system. This section explores these contexts and characteristics of South Africa's PR system.

Historical context of the electoral system

From 1910 until 1994, South Africa's electoral franchise had remained almost exclusively the preserve of the white minority population. The electoral system of the time was thus interwoven with the prevailing apartheid political system. Although racism was practised from before the formation of the South African Union as far back as 1910, and even earlier, apartheid was formalised in 1948. Prior to 1994, the majority 'non-white' population was systematically excluded from participating in the political and economic decision-making processes.

As a response to institutionalised apartheid-racism, black-African, Indian and Coloured South Africans organised themselves to oppose the system through both passive and, later, violent resistance. There was a protracted period of resistance, during which the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP), the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) and several trade unions were banned, and the international community applied punitive economic sanctions on the South African government.

The political stalemate culminated in the National Party (NP) government opening the way to a negotiated settlement towards a democratic South Africa. The negotiations began in 1990 and followed the announcement by then President F. W. de Klerk that the ANC and a range of other organisations were to be unbanned and Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners released from prison. The negotiations were conducted at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) and the subsequent Multi-Party Negotiation Process (MPNP). The Codesa process brought together the NP, the (largely NP) government, the ANC and a range of other opposition groupings to negotiate on the terms for a constitutional settlement and an electoral system to ensure a universal and integrated franchise. Codesa specifically marked the transition towards a non-racial South Africa.

Through Codesa and the MPNP, and due to increasing internal and international pressures to resolve disagreements, the parties adopted the Interim Constitution of 1993 and agreed to a Government of National Unity (GNU) for the first five years after elections. The Interim Constitution provided for a series of power-sharing arrangements. It entailed that any political party securing a minimum of 5 per cent of the national vote would be guaranteed a cabinet post, and any party which secured at least 20 per cent of the national vote was entitled to nominate a deputy president of the republic. Similar power-sharing arrangements existed at the provincial level. The 400 seats in the National Assembly were allocated according to the proportion of votes each party received.

The 1994 elections took place under the Interim Constitution agreed during Codesa, as well as the Independent Electoral Commission Act of 1993 (see section on the Electoral Commission), which established an interim electoral commission to assist the Department of Home Affairs in running the elections, and the Electoral Act of 1993, which outlined the provisions for the conduct of the 1994 elections (Constitution 1993, Electoral Act 1993, and Independent Electoral Commission Act 1993). An election date was set for 27 April 1994, run in terms of a list-based, proportional representation system.

Negotiations on a permanent constitution commenced in 1996, with the primary negotiations handled by Cyril Ramaphosa for the ANC and the NP's Roelf Meyer. The houses of parliament sat as the constitution-making body. This constitution was adopted on 10 December 1996, making South Africa a constitutional democracy with universal franchise. The constitution confirmed the national list, proportional representation system used in the 1994 elections.

Requirements of the electoral system

The Constitution of 1996 (section 46 (1d)) requires an electoral system that "results, in general, in proportional representation". All four general elections held in South Africa from 1994 to 2009 were conducted through a single party list system of proportional representation. The country uses the closed-list proportional representation system for its national, provincial and half of all local government elections. On the local level a mixed electoral system applies, with half the councillors elected in first-past-the-post ward elections, and the other half in terms of PR on local lists. Under the PR system, political parties present lists of candidates for the National Assembly and the nine provincial legislatures. Voters, who are of the minimum age of 18 and registered on the voters' roll, use two ballots - one national and the other provincial (with nine variations on the provincial list) - to cast votes for the party of their choice.

In this electoral system, half of the 400 members of the National Assembly are chosen from the nine provincial lists, and the other half from single national lists prepared by the parties. (Parties may also choose only to construct provincial lists.) Parties are free to register for contestation in any or all of the ten (one national and nine provincial) electoral races. The parties thus structure their electoral lists, bearing in mind provincial power bases. Most of the parties that contest both nationally and across the provinces choose to have 19 nineteen lists - one national list, nine provincial-to-national lists, and nine provincial lists. It has only been the DA that has adopted a more federal orientation and only submitted nine province-to-national lists for representation in the National Assembly. Half of the 400 members of the National Assembly are therefore chosen from the parties' national lists, and the other half from parties' nine provincial-to-national lists. Provincial representatives thus go to parliament pro rata to the performance of their party in particular provinces.

The Droop quota is used to allocate seats. Surplus seats are apportioned using the largest remainder method. There is no mandatory threshold for parties to gain representation in parliament. In theory, the National Assembly size is based on 1 seat for every 100 000 citizens. In 2009, approximately 45 000 votes (or 0.25 per cent voter support in the national election) were required to win a seat. The same applied, mutatis mutandis, for the provincial legislatures. Here, the parties' provincial electoral strengths determine the apportionment of seats. Provincial legislatures have between 30 and 80 seats (Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, Section 46), roughly in relation to provincial population size.

Debates about the appropriateness of the electoral system

South Africa experiences ongoing debates about the appropriateness, or not, of the PR list system. The most incisive critiques concern the insufficiency of representation by the elected representatives. They are frequently more beholden to party bosses than to constituents. However, several factors have thus far favoured the retention of PR. These included its accurate reflection of proportion of votes gained, smaller and opposition parties often gaining higher levels of legislative representation than would have been the case in a first-past-the-post system, PR systems often moderating inter-party conflict that stem from skewed representation, and the PR list system being conducive to quota systems that bring in, for example, improved gender representation.

In 2002 an electoral task team under Dr Frederick van Zyl Slabbert recommended the adoption of a multi-member constituency system to replace the single list system, whilst retaining a commitment to PR. The Electoral Commission, as well as governing party actors, however, declared themselves in favour of retention of the prevailing system. One of the ANC's 2007 Polokwane conference resolutions also pronounced in favour of the retention of PR. The debate continued, however, and resurfaced in the wake of the ANC's 'recall' from office of former president Mbeki. Both Mbeki's supporters at the time and the subsequent party, Cope, were angered by the ANC's NEC acting to end the term of a nationally elected (albeit indirect and by the ruling party) president. They called for the retention of the PR system in general, but in combination with the direct election of the president, provincial premiers and municipal government's executive mayors. In early January 2009, parliament released the report of an independent panel of assessment, commissioned by parliament in 2007, which persisted with the previously expressed sentiments of finding an alternative that would combine aspects of the proportional and constituency systems. The panel concluded (Report of the independent panel, 2009):

... the impact of the party list electoral system as it is currently structured in South Africa, as well as alternative systems, should be given consideration by Parliament. The view of the panel is that the current electoral system should be replaced by a mixed system which attempts to capture the benefits of both the constituency-based and proportional representation electoral systems.



CONSTITUTION OF THE REPUBLIC OF SA 1996, [www] [opens new window] (accessed 7 Feb 2011).

REPORT OF THE INDEPENDENT PANEL ASSESSMENT OF PARLIAMENT, 13 January 2009. Cape Town, Parliament of South Africa.

THE ELECTORAL ACT, 202 of 1993.