Elections in South Africa

  1. Electoral systems
  2. South Africa’s electoral system
  3. The rights of voters

  1. Electoral systems

Having regular, free and fair elections is one of the cornerstones of democracy. This goes together with other important democratic principles such as the right to vote, to choose which party you want to belong to and to accept the results of an election.

There are different ways to elect representatives into government, including the system of proportional representative and the constituency-based system. The South African Constitution says elections must be based on the system of proportional representation.

Proportional representation (PR)

This means that parties get a certain number of seats in parliament according to the percentage of votes that they get in an election. So, for example, if your party gets 15% of all the votes in the country then it gets 15% of the seats in Parliament.

There are 400 seats in the national parliament. So for every 0.25% of the vote a party gets 1 seat.

This example shows how seats are allocated.

2004 Election South Africa: 400 seats

PartyPercentage of voteNumber of seats

Constituency-based elections

This system is used in some countries like the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe. According to this system, the country is divided up into voting areas called constituencies. Each political party chooses one person to represent the party in each constituency. This person is called the party's candidate. Only people in that constituency vote for the candidate of their choice. The candidate who gets the most votes goes to parliament as the representative for that constituency. The votes cast for losing candidates count for nothing.

Many people like the constituency system because people are represented by an individual that they can hold to account. The disadvantages of the system is that smaller parties may get no seats and the votes cast for them fall away. In South Africa all parties agreed during the constitutional negotiations that we should adopt a PR system so that even the smallest party will get representation in parliament.

Some countries also use a mixed system with some PR and some constituency representatives.

In South Africa our municipal elections use a mixture of a constituency and a PR system. The country is divided into 3900 wards and the people in each ward select an individual to represent them in the local council. People also vote for a party to represent them in the council.

  1. South Africa’s electoral system

National and provincial elections

In South Africa we use a PR system to vote for parliament and provincial legislatures. Parliament has 400 seats and each of the nine provincial legislatures has between 30 and 90 seats depending on the number of people who live in the province.

Provincial and national elections are held together and have to take place every five years. Voters vote for the national and provincial legislatures on separate ballot papers.

The elections are run by an Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) who administers every part of the elections to ensure that they are free and fair. All registered political parties are represented on a Party Liaison Committee that gives advice to, and gets information from the IEC

Before the elections political parties draw up a list of candidates for each of the legislatures they wish to contest. For the national assembly, parties can submit half their candidates on a national list and half on provincial lists. When the results are announced the IEC works out how many people from each party list should take up seats in the legislatures.

Local elections (municipal)

There are three different categories of municipalities in South Africa and they have slightly different electoral systems.

Metropolitan municipalities (Category A):

Metropolitan municipalities exist in the six biggest cities in South Africa. They have more than 500 000 voters and the metropolitan municipality co-ordinates the delivery of services to the whole area. There are metropolitan municipalities in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Ethekweni (Durban), Tshwane (Pretoria), Nelson Mandela (Port Elizabeth) and the Ekhuruleni (East Rand). These municipalities are broken into wards. Half the councillors are elected through a proportional representation ballot, where voters vote for a party. The other half are elected as ward councillors by the residents in each ward.

Local municipalities (Category B):

Areas that fall outside of the six metropolitan municipal areas are divided into local municipalities. There are a total of 231 of these local municipalities and each municipality is broken into wards. The residents in each ward are represented by a ward councillor. Voters in these municipalities also vote for district councils.
Half the local councillors are elected through a proportional representation ballot, where voters vote for a party. The other half are elected as ward councillors by the residents in each ward.

Only people who live in low population areas, like game parks, do not fall under local municipalities. The areas are called district management areas (DMA) and fall directly under the district municipality.

District municipalities (Category C):

District municipalities are made up of a number of local municipalities that fall in one district. There are usually between 4 - 6 local municipalities that come together in a district council and there are 47 district municipalities in South Africa. The district municipality has to co-ordinate development and delivery in the whole district.

The district council is made up of two types of councillors:

Elected councillors - they are elected for the district council on a proportional representation ballot by all voters in the area. (40% of the district councillors)

Councillors who represent local municipalities in the area - they are local councillors sent by their council to represent it on the district council. (60% of the district councillors)

Who votes for what?

Metro Council voters:one PR vote for metro council
one ward vote for individual candidate
Local Council voters:one PR vote for local council
one ward vote for individual candidate
one PR vote for District Council
District Management one PR vote for DMA representatives to DC,
Area voters:one PR vote for District Council

Note: in some very small local councils with very few councillors, there may be no wards and only a PR vote.

  1. The rights of voters

Who can vote?

All South African citizens over the age of 18 who are registered voters are allowed to vote in elections. You need an ID book to vote. Voters are registered to a particular voting district and in local elections may only vote at the voting station in that district. For national and provincial elections voters should still vote where they are registered, but in some cases are allowed to vote outside the voting district if they have proof that they are registered.

Voter registration

South Africa is divided into about 19 000 voting districts – each one with its own voting station. To vote you have to be on the voters roll for your voting district.

Registration works like this:

  • You need a green ID book with a bar code (issued after 1986) or a temporary ID document.
  • Go to the voting station on a public registration day (or the municipal office on a normal working day) and fill in a form to show that you live in the area.
  • A special machine (Zip –Zip) will be available in each voting district - it can read the bar code in your ID book and automatically records the correct information about your name and ID number for the voter’s roll.
  • The machine also prints a sticker that will be pasted in your ID book to show that you have registered at that voting station.

The IEC has the whole voters roll on one national computer and when you register the computer will check if your ID number already appears somewhere else. If it does, the computer will automatically cancel your registration at your old voting district and only accept the latest registration.

The rights of voters and political parties

  • Voters have the right to a secret vote - No one may know who you voted for.
  • Voters have the right to choose – no one may force, intimidate or bribe a voter to vote or not vote for a party
  • Voters have the right to vote – no one may stop you from voting by forcing you to work or by preventing you from getting to the voting station
  • Voters have a right to get information from parties – no-one may stop parties or candidates from reaching voters.

Political parties and their candidates are bound by the Electoral Code of Conduct which forms part of the Electoral Act. Political parties that break the Code can be fined, stopped from working in an area, or have their votes in an area cancelled. An individual who break the Code or commit other offences under the Electoral Act can be fined or jailed.

Here are the main Do’s and Don’ts of the Code of Conduct:


  • encourage all your members and supporters to be tolerant of other parties
  • condemn political violence
  • support the right of all parties to campaign freely
  • inform the proper authorities of all planned marches and rallies
  • actively work with all IEC structures
  • co-operate with the police in their investigation of election crime and violence

Do not:

  • use any kind of violence or threats against anyone who supports another party
  • remove or destroy any other party’s property, posters or pamphlets
  • disrupt another party’s public meeting
  • stop other parties from door-todoor work or campaigning in your area
  • threaten or stop people who want to attend meetings of other parties
  • force people to join your party, attend meetings or donate money
  • spread false rumours about another party
  • use violent language or urge people to use violence against any party or person