3 Electoral Reforms to Improve South Africa’s Democracy

In the wake of a recent election, South Africans have the opportunity to reflect on how our electoral system works. We are privileged to live in a thriving democracy where political violence, intimidation, and gerrymandering, while not absent, are not (yet) substantial enough to make...

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In the wake of a recent election, South Africans have the opportunity to reflect on how our electoral system works. We are privileged to live in a thriving democracy where political violence, intimidation, and gerrymandering, while not absent, are not (yet) substantial enough to make a real difference to the outcome of elections. But our otherwise healthy democracy can use some tweaking, and, in this respect, electoral reform should, as the African National Congress’ Omry Makgoale convincingly argues, be placed on the national agenda.

Three potential reforms that would liven up our democracy worth considering are: Replacing the National Council of Provinces with a directly-elected Senate; electing National Assembly members by way of the single transferable vote system; and increasing the size of the National Assembly proportionally to population growth.

Create a Senate


The National Council of Provinces (NCOP) is a colossal waste of taxpayer money and makes a mockery of democracy. On paper, it is responsible for representing the interests of the provinces at the national level. In practice, it reproduces the results of the National Assembly, thereby abdicating its responsibilities as a check and balance on the lower house. It is a federal institution in what is effectively a unitary state, where provincial interests are not wildly divergent. Indeed, South Africans to greater or lesser extents share the same problems and interests across the board.

South Africa would benefit if the NCOP were replaced by a directly-elected Senate based on a first-past-the-post (FPTP) model. Instead of indirectly choosing provincial legislatures and then those legislatures choosing a delegation to go to Parliament, we will vote for specific individuals who may or may not be affiliated with parties to represent our electoral districts in the Senate. This will ensure accountability and, because the Senate would be directly elected, would mean that it won’t be subordinate to the National Assembly like the NCOP currently is. It will serve as an effective check and balance on the lower house.

History of upper houses in South Africa

In 1910, when the Union of South Africa was established, we had a bicameral system with a House of Assembly and a Senate. The Governor-General was the representative of the head of state, the British monarch, and a Prime Minister was elected from the House of Assembly. The Prime Minister was the head of government, and the Governor-General fulfilled a largely ceremonial role.

In 1961, when the Republic was established, this system was subjected to only symbolic changes. We had a bicameral system with a House of Assembly and a Senate. The Governor-General became the State President, which continued to be a largely ceremonial position.

In 1984, we replaced the bicameral system with a very unique tricameral system, consisting of the House of Assembly, the House of Representatives, and the House of Delegates. The office of Prime Minister was abolished for a State President who was now both our head of state and head of government. He was elected via an electoral college composed of all three houses of Parliament. The Senate and the concept of an ‘upper house’ of Parliament was abolished.

In 1993, our interim Constitution gave us, again, a bicameral system with a National Assembly and a Senate.

In 1994, this structure remained, however, the name of the Senate changed to the National Council of Provinces.

At no point in South Africa’s history was the upper house, or the two non-white houses of the Tricameral Parliament, equal in stature and power to the lower house. This meant that with few exceptions, when the lower house came to a decision, that decision would carry, regardless of the protests or resistance of the upper house.

Two-party nature of the Senate

If we are to pursue the idea of a Senate, we must appreciate from the start that the Senate will consist of two large parties, and virtually no small parties. But this is why the National Assembly, with its effective proportional representation, will be kept. The Senate, while serving a representative function, will not have that as its primary function. Instead, its primary function will be accountability and a strong check on the executive branch.

Furthermore, do not be shocked when the inevitable happens: The African National Congress (ANC) will control a majority in the Senate – an even larger majority than it does in the National Assembly. However, these ANC senators’ mandate will not emanate from the party, like that of ANC Members of Parliament in the National Assembly. The senators’ mandate will be from their constituency, who should be able to recall them at any time.

We should not be concerned about the current parties and how they will benefit or be disadvantaged by these reforms. Indeed, the fact that the ANC will benefit might be a crucial ingredient, otherwise this suggestion is impossible.

Potential powers and composition of the Senate

Some of the crucial powers of the Senate must be:

  • Confirm/reject Cabinet appointments (no senator may serve in the Cabinet or executive government)

  • Initiate the impeachment of the President (the National Assembly still has the prerogative to recall the President through a motion of no confidence)

  • It, not the President, must be responsible for choosing judicial officers recommended by the Judicial Service Commission

  • Vote on National Assembly bills. If the Senate rejects a National Assembly bill, the NA can overrule it with a 66.3% (two-thirds) majority.

There is no fixed template for how the Senate must be composed. Our National Assembly is a hybrid, for example, with half of the Members of Parliament being taken from a national list and the other half from a regional list. Read more about this system here and here.

One recommendation for how a Senate of 50 members could be composed:

  • 34 directly-elected senators in single-member electoral constituencies across the country with equal populations

  • 2 senators, each representing a province, designated by the 9 provincial legislatures. This would ensure the provinces could still directly make their governments’ voices heard in the Senate.

Reforms in the National Assembly

The lower house, the National Assembly (NA), can also do with some reform.

Proportional representation

We certainly don’t wish to get rid of proportional representation (PR). PR ensures that smaller constituencies also have an opportunity to have their voices heard in Parliament. Above all, PR ensures that substantial minorities are not disregarded in South African politics. Indeed, if we had a full FPTP model, if Party A acquired 50%+1 vote in a ward, the other 50%-1 vote would be politically unrepresented. In the PR system, both these constituencies are represented if they meet a minimum vote threshold.

Many have complained about the closed party list system which ensures representatives are accountable to party bosses only, rather than to their constituencies. One way to solve this – with the added benefit that it would not take a constitutional amendment, unlike the other two recommendations – is to implement the single transferable vote system.

Single transferable vote and open party list

The single transferable vote (STV) would retain the PR system but will allow voters to rank parties in their order of preference. Additionally, it can be further extended to allow voters to rank specific people on the party list in their order of preference so that unliked or corrupt deployees are moved down the list.

Currently, many South Africans vote for specific parties because they don’t want to run the risk of having another, worse party, gaining power. They vote for a “lesser evil” rather than for someone they really want. With the STV, voters can pick their real first choice, and if that first choice does not get a seat (or an additional seat, whatever the case may be) in Parliament, then those votes transfer to their second choice.

Size of the National Assembly

Finally, it might be wise to abolish the upper cap on the size of the NA. Currently, the Constitution provides that the NA must consist of between 350 and 400 seats. Presently it consists of 400 seats, the upper limit.

Therefore, as the population grows, each seat represents more and more people so that each vote weighs less and less. Imagine one constituency (which sends one representative to occupy one seat in the NA) consisting of five people. Each vote in that constituency would be worth 20% of the total. If it consisted of ten people, the value of each vote declines to 10%, and so forth. In every election, a party requires a greater percentage of votes to get a seat in Parliament, which is not necessarily conducive to democracy.

As an alternative, provision could be made that for every 50,000 additional registered voters, another seat be added to the NA. With 26,736,803 voters currently registered in South Africa, on this model, there would be about 535 seats in the NA. This would ensure that each vote is more meaningful and that representatives do not become responsible for groups of people so large that they can no longer conscientiously represent everyone, but only sectional interests.

You might object to this additional burden on the taxpayer, given that for every 50,000 more registered South Africans we’ll need to pay another parliamentary salary. But for every additional seat created in the NA, there could be a proportional reduction in the salaries of everyone else in the assembly. Our parliamentarians are overpaid as it is, given that they spend most of their days enacting new laws that make life more expensive and difficult for the rest of us. Alternatively, but this is a long-shot, we could abolish parliamentary salaries entirely, and require political parties to pay their deployees in Parliament with their own, private money.

Omry Makgoale’s call for an Electoral Reform Society to be formed in South Africa should be taken seriously. It is something I expect most South Africans could get behind. These three reforms will improve accountability and representation, and will improve an already vibrant democracy. It’s something to think about for the future.

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