A Better Electoral System
for South Africa?
Features of the Present
South Africa held
its first national elections on the basis of universal suffrage in 1994. The
elections were held on the basis of proportional representation or PR. Under
cast ballots for a list of candidates nominated by the political party of
their choice rather than for individual candidates.
- The number of seats allocated to each party closely reflects
its percentage of the total vote.
individuals chosen to occupy the seats allocated to their party depends on
their ranking on their party’s list of candidates.
There are no electoral
districts in PR systems, but most countries that use PR do not allocate seats
to political parties solely on the basis of each party’s share of the national
vote. In the case of South Africa, and in more than 20 other countries, a “two
tier” method is used:
the 400 seats in the National Assembly, 200 are allocated to parties on the
basis of their proportions of the total national vote, and 200 are allocated
on the basis of their proportions of the vote in each of South Africa’s nine
This two-tier method was used to elect the first multi-racial
National Assembly in 1994 and the second in 1999. However, the South African
constitution does not specify what form of electoral system should be used
for the next parliamentary elections other than to state, in section 46(1)
that the system “results, in general, in proportional representation.”
of the Present System
South Africa is
a rare example of a new democracy where the choice of electoral system was discussed
extensively before the transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. In
the early 1990s, long before the negotiations that that crafted the interim
constitution of 1993, ANC leaders including Kader Asmal and Albie Sachs argued
that South Africa’s electoral system should be based on PR. Their reasoning
would provide all parties, no matter how small, with representation in the
national legislature proportional to their electoral support.
PR would provide for the representation of South Africa’s racial
minorities without resorting to the creation of reserved seats and separate
voters rolls for different racial groups as in Zimbabwe. In other words,
PR was a non-racial mechanism to facilitate racial representation if parties
would, as expected, draw the most of their support from different racial,
ethnic or linguistic groups.
use of the party list which is the basis of PR would enable all parties, especially
the ANC, to insure the election of women, racial minorities, and individuals
with specialized expertise by ranking them high on the party’s list.
In sum, a PR system would be a highly inclusive system,
and as such the best system for guaranteeing South Africa’s transition to
The arguments in favor of PR were borne
out by the 1994 elections:
parties that had threatened to boycott the elections—the Inkatha Freedom Party
(IFP) and Freedom Front (FF)—participated in the elections and accepted the
was a marked decline in political violence following the elections.
And by the 1999 elections:
participation in the elections by all political parties, and an acceptance
of the results.
cabinet that is arguably more diverse in terms of its racial background, gender
and areas of specialization than would be the case with an electoral system
that does not require parties to rank-order its candidates on a party list.
the Present System
Although the choice
of PR eased South Africa’s transition to democracy, PR may not
be the most appropriate electoral system to assure the consolidation of democracy.
Many citizens and political leaders, including members of the governing party,
believe the current system should be modified. They cite the following fundamental
problems with PR:
members of the National Assembly are not elected from electoral districts,
it is impossible for the residents of a given geographic area or community
to hold individual legislators accountable for their performance on behalf
of the community.
legislators cannot be held individually accountable for their performance,
they have few incentives to learn about the particular needs of local communities,
or to address these needs.
Because legislators do not represent the residents of defined
geographic areas, they are not easily accessible to members of the public.
This is particularly true for South Africa’s rural population, because most
members of the National Assembly reside in Gauteng Province or other urban
areas, and spend a large part of each year sitting in Parliament in Cape Town.
Without traveling long distances to an MP’s home or to Cape Town, most citizens
never see a member during the five year interval between elections.
sum, PR weakens the vital links between government and the public that are
the essence of democracy
To address these weaknesses with PR,
the following reforms have occurred:
In October 1994, the ANC began to assign each of its members
in the National Assembly to a specific geographic area that would be his or
her unofficial “constituency.”
members of the National Assembly, regardless of party, receive 3,000 rand
per month to enable them to visit and maintain an office in the “constituency”
to which they are sent by their party.
These reforms, however, have not been
effective for three reasons.
- Most members do not reside in the areas to which they
are assigned, and must therefore travel long distances and be away from their
families to implement the reform.
funds provided to members to travel regularly to their designated “constituencies”
are apparently few or no sanctions on members who do not visit their designated
The use of party
lists is also subject to abuse that undermines democracy.
candidates and those seeking a high ranking on their party’s list must respond
first to the leadership of their party rather than to the voices of the people.
- The use of party lists enables the
party leadership to remove independent and critical legislators from office
by removing them from the list. Rather than guaranteeing diversity, the lists
can be used to enforce intra-party discipline and insure conformity with the
leadership. While there is no clear evidence of this practice in South Africa,
the potential for supressing dissent is real.
Not surprisingly, the leadership of
all major parties in South Africa endorse the continuation of the present system,
because it places power in their hands. Yet within the ANC many backbenchers
and some ministers favor an alternative to the present system that would include
some form of district based representation. This is particularly true of younger
MPs and former UDF leaders—politicians who remained in South Africa during
the 1980s and who developed local bases of support during this period. A district
based system would enable them to consolidate such support by seeking election
in the areas where that support is greatest. By contrast, ANC leaders who were
in exile and who now dominate the party, favor PR.
Copyright © 2001 by Joel D. Barkan,
Paul Densham and Gerard Rushton