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South Africa is one of the most democratic states in a continent where genuine democracy is struggling to take root. But it is a new democracy (there has only been votes for all since 2004) and it is a flawed democracy (one party has dominated power all that time winning easily all six general elections).

The current constitution, the country's fifth, was drawn up by the Parliament elected in 1994 in the first non-racial elections. It came into effect on 4 February 1997, replacing the Interim Constitution of 1993, and it has been the subject of 17 amendments. Under this constitution, South Africa is a parliamentary republic although, unlike most such republics, the President is both head of state and head of government.

The country has an unusual geographical location of the main institutions. Parliament sits in Cape Town, even though the seat of government is in Pretoria. This dates back to the foundation of the Union, when there was disagreement among the then four provinces as to which city would be the national capital. As a compromise, Pretoria was made the administrative capital, Cape Town was designated the legislative capital, and Bloemfontein became the judicial capital.

The African National Congress (ANC) government has proposed moving Parliament to Pretoria, arguing that the present arrangement is cumbersome as ministers, civil servants and diplomats must move back and forth when Parliament is in session. The constitution does allow for this.


The President, Deputy President and the Ministers make up the executive branch of the national government. The president and ministers are Members of Parliament who are appointed by the President to head the various departments of the national government.

The President is not directly elected but elected by Parliament from its members. He is - unusually - both head of state and head of government and depends for his tenure on the continued confidence of Parliament. The Constitution limits a president to serve a maximum of two five-year terms.

Since the overthrow of apartheid and the introduction of universal suffrage, South Africa has had five Presidents, all from the African National Congress (ANC): Nelson Mandela (1994-1999), Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008), Kgalema Motlanthe (2008-2009), Jacob Zuma (2009-2018) and Cyril Ramaphosa (2018-date).

The South Africa government operates from the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

Link: the Presidency of South Africa click here


The lower house of the Parliament of South Africa is called the National Assembly. It consists of 400 members who are elected every five years using a party-list proportional representation system where half of the members (200) are elected proportionally from nine provincial lists and the remaining half (200) from national lists so as to provide an overall allocation of seats which is proportional to the votes cast for each political party. Parties decide whether they want to set up both national and regional lists or only regional lists.

The nine provinces are Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West, Northern Cape, and Western Cape. Every election, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) determines the allocation of the 200 regional list seats to each of these provinces by the size of the population.

Members sit in a horseshoe-shaped pattern with the Government (the African National Congress) to the right of the speaker and the Opposition (the Democratic Alliance and others) to the left - just like at Westminster in Britain (they even call the recording of debates Hansard as in the UK).

Unlike many countries where the government and the parliament are in the same city, the National Assembly is the located in Cape Town in Western Cape Province in a building originally opened in 1885. When I went on a tour of the National ssembly in 2004, the new democratic parliament had been sitting for ten years and, to mark this first decade, there was a long banner on the outside of the building setting out the titles of the main items of legislation carried.

The last election to the National Assembly was on 8 May 2019 and the next next one will be in May 2024.

Link: National Assembly click here


The upper house of the Parliament of South Africa is called the National Council of Provinces. It consists of 90 members with each of the nine provincial legislatures electing 10 members. To repeat: the nine provinces are Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West, Northern Cape, and Western Cape.

This means that, as with the 50 American states in relation to the US Senate, each of the nine provinces has equal representation in the Council regardless of population.

Each provincial delegation consists of six permanent delegates, who are nominated for a term that lasts until a new provincial legislature is elected, and four special delegates. One of the special delegates is the province's Premier, or another member of the provincial legislature designated by the Premier, and the other three special delegates are designated by the provincial legislature. The party representation in the delegation must proportionally reflect the party representation in the provincial legislature.

As with the the National Assembly, the National Council of Provinces is located in Cape Town in Western Cape Province.

Link: National Council of Provinces click here


There is no shortage of political parties in South Africa. However, only a small number of parties have real influence and power.

Indeed, since the overthrow of apartheid and the introduction of universal sufferage, one political party has utterly dominated South African politics and power: the African National Congress (ANC). Like many political parties in post-colonial Africa, the ANC was originally a liberation movement which, following the collapse of apartheid, became a conventional political party. As a liberation movement, its political policies were Left-wing but, as a political party, it has become pro-market. The leader of the party is Cyril Ramaphosa. In the General Election of 2019, it won 57.5% of the vote (down from 62.2% in 2014) and secured 230 seats in the National Assemby (a reduction of 19). This is the first time the party’s share has fallen below 60% in national elections since the country’s first free polls in 1994. The ANC won with almost 70% of the vote in 2004.

The principal opponent of the ANC and the official opposition in parliament is the Democratic Alliance (DA). The DA is even more pro-market than the ANC. In May 2015, 34 year old Mmusi Maimane was elected as its first black leader. Its support is mainly concentrated in the Western Cape which has a large white and mixed-race population. In 2019, it won 20.8%% of the vote (down from 22.2% at the previous election) and obtained 84 seats (a loss of 5).

A recent challenger to the ANC is led by a former ANC activist: the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) headed by the young (early 30s) Julius Malema. The EEF has a radical, Left-wing programme involving support for nationalisation of the banks and mines. In its first general election in 2014, it won 6.3% of the vote and , making it the third largest party in the National Assembly. In the last election in 2019, it boosted its share of the vote to 10.8% increasing its seats by 19 to 44.

Three much smaller parties are currently represented in the National Assemby: the Inkatha Freedom Party (14 seats), the Freedom Front Plus (10 seats) and the African Christian Democratic Party (4 seats).


South Africa has plenty of courts and plenty of crimes to occupy their deliberations.

The judicial system consists of: the magistrates' courts, which hear lesser criminal cases and smaller civil cases; the High Courts, which are courts of general jurisdiction for specific areas; the Supreme Court of Appeal, which is the highest court in all but constitutional matters; and the Constitutional Court, which hears only constitutional matters.

The Supreme Court of Appeal is located in Bloemfontein. The Constitutional Court sits in Johannesburg, a different location from the government capital, the parliament capital and the judicial capital.


South Africa is a large country with a significant measure of decentralisation. Below the national level, it operates through nine provinces which are Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West, Northern Cape, and Western Cape.

Each of the country's nine provinces is governed by a unicameral (single chamber) legislature. The size of the legislature is proportional to population, ranging from 30 members in the Northern Cape to 80 in KwaZulu-Natal.

The legislatures are elected every five years by a system of party-list proportional representation. By convention, they are all elected on the same day at the same time as the election to the National Assembly.

The provincial legislature elects, from amongst its members, a Premier, who is the head of the executive. The Premier chooses an Executive Council consisting of between five and ten members of the legislature, which is the cabinet of the provincial government. The Members of the Executive Council (MECs) are the provincial equivalent of ministers.

The powers of the provincial government are limited to specific topics listed in the national constitution. On some of these topics - for example, agriculture, education, health and public housing - the province's powers are shared with the national government, which can establish uniform standards and frameworks for the provincial governments to follow; on other topics the provincial government has exclusive power.

The provinces do not have their own court systems, as the administration of justice is a responsibility purely of the national government.

All the provinces of South Africa are controlled by the ANC, except one: the Western Cape is governed by the Democratic Alliance.


When full democracy arrived in South Africa, there was massive support for the political process with great enthusiasm for voting - usually for the ANC. Two decades on, there is much less excitement about voting and growing disillusionment with the ANC.

Some 20 million South Africans (around 40% of the population) are so-called "born-frees" - that is, they were born after the overthrow of apartheid. Not only are they less likely to vote; they are less likely even to register to vote. Turnout at the last general election was down to 66%.

South Africa's economy grew just 0.8% in 2018 and official unemployment hovers around 27% – and is over 50% among young people. Many voters are angry at failing services, high crime levels, and a failure to act against corrupt officials.

One the most visible manifestations of this corruption is what has been dubbed "Nkandlagate": the building by the previous President Jacob Zuma of a splendid homestead in the deprived rural area of Nkandla in the province of KwaZulu-Natal with an alleged public cost of 246M rand (£ 13.7M)


Last modified on 17 May 2019

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