A Better Electoral System for South Africa?

Key Features of the Present System

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 PR:

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:

Strengths 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 was straightforward:

The arguments in favor of PR were borne out by the 1994 elections:

And by the 1999 elections:

Problems with 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:

To address these weaknesses with PR, the following reforms have occurred:

These reforms, however, have not been effective for three reasons.

The use of party lists is also subject to abuse that undermines democracy. 

Winners and Losers

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