South Africa: Women and local government: By the numbers

David Pottie, February 2001

Extracted from Pottie, D & Ford, H (eds), Local Government in South Africa: Elections 2000, EISA.

A crucial test of South Africa's new system of local government is the degree to which the new local government structures secure legitimacy in the eyes of voters. Considerable attention has been directed towards the slightly less than 50% voter turnout in the December elections. A low poll may be interpreted in a number of ways, ranging from voter apathy, to a voter stay away as an expression of dissatisfaction, to a lack of voter education to poorly conducted campaigns by political parties that failed to inspire voters to exercise their right to vote.

But another indication of the health of South Africa local electoral democracy is the degree to which the elected representatives reflect the basic demographic composition of the country. This is as true for gender as it is for other characteristics in South African society. Moreover, women in South Africa may lay a strong claim to additional interest in the service delivery areas for which local government is responsible. As workers, caregivers and mothers and as community leaders, women have long been at the forefront of basic development demands among South Africa's poor. Given the government's emphasis on building a vision of "developmental local government" since 1994 it stands to reason that women would be at the forefront of local electoral politics.

However women's performance as elected councillors prior to the 2000 elections did not live up to that promise. Women comprised only 19% of total councillors. Women did comprise 28% of councillors elected on PR lists, but only 11% of ward councillors. Thus women's representation following the local elections of 1995/96 fell short of the levels achieved in national and provincial assemblies. In the 1999 national elections, women won 119 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly - 29.7% of the total (up from 27% in 1994). The majority of these women were from the ANC (97). South Africa ranks in the top ten countries in the world in terms of representation of women at national level.

Following the 2000 elections the overall representation of women as elected councillors has improved dramatically. Women now comprise 28.2% of all councillors. A total of 2 271 women were elected out of 8 044 seats[1].

The following tables and commentary provide a series of breakdowns of women's performance in the various council races and establish some of the basic patterns of women's representation.


[1] Note on figures: The figures in the tables do not always perfectly correlate, this is partly owing to minor discrepancies in the figures received from the IEC and possible errors in calculations based on multiple data sources. However, the figures as presented offer a reasonable indication of the basic gender patterns in the 5 December 2001 municipal elections. Thanks to Dorothy Rangongo of the IEC and Lion Phasha of EISA.