Earlier this month, South Africa, which practices proportional representation, conducted its 5th general election since the end of the apartheid era. The system of proportional representation has been deemed crucial to the inclusive nature of the new South African state. During the apartheid era, the all-white parliament was selected by a winner-take-all system, much like the current system in the United States. When apartheid ended and a new constitution was being written, it was apparent that Nelson Mandela and his party, the African National Congress (ANC), could win an overwhelming victory under the same system. However, Mandela pushed for proportional representation, recognizing that its inclusive nature would lead to a stronger reconciliation.
This year’s election results showed the left-wing ANC, led by President Jacob Zuma, coming away with a commanding majority, garnering 62% of the vote along with 62% of seats. Their closest competitor, the centrist Democratic Alliance (DA), only received 22% of the votes and seats. The third party, the newly formed left-wing-populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), earned a mere 6%. The ANC has won a majority of seats in every general election since the end of apartheid, never falling beneath 60% of the vote. Although the ANC's commanding lead meant that control of the government was a foregone conclusion, turnout was still 73.5%, and of those who voted, 99% cast a vote for a party that won at least one seat, meaning that almost every voter contributed to their representation. Furthermore, the ANC will face a healthy opposition that comprises more than a third of the National Assembly.
|Party||% Votes||Seats||% Seats|
|African National Congress||62.2%||249||62.3%|
|Economic Freedom Fighters||6.4%||25||6.3%|
|Inkatha Freedom Party||2.4%||10||2.5%|
|National Freedom Party||1.6%||6||1.5%|
|United Democratic Movement||1%||4||1%|
|Freedom Front Plus||0.9%||4||1%|
|Congress of the People||0.7%||3||0.8%|
|African Christian Democratic Party||0.6%||3||0.8%|
|African Independent Congress||0.5%||3||0.8%|
|Pan Africanist Congress||0.2%||1||0.3%|
|African People's Congress||0.2%||1||0.3%|
Although a victory with over 60% would typically be seen as decisive, the ANC’s strong history meant that some have viewed the party’s stock as declining. This is mostly driven by the fact that the ANC lost its super-majority (66% of seats) that gave it the power to enact broad sweeping changes without the approval of other parties. Now, the ANC will have to reach across the aisle (to either side) to achieve such changes. Given their long-standing opposition to the DA and the fact that the EFF started as a splinter group that left the ANC, it seems that building a coalition could prove difficult.
The DA declared their 5% increase in seat-share a victory, with party leader Helen Zille saying they had “broken the ceiling”. President (and ANC leader) Jacob Zuma attempted to explain his party’s declining seat share, saying that negative campaigning from other parties had stacked the odds against the ANC. Others have pointed to the strong negative relationship between GDP per capita and the percentage of seats won by the ANC. This could spell problems for the ANC as South Africa’s burgeoning middle class continues to grow.
South Africa’s system of closed-list proportional representation is enshrined in its constitution. Under this system, voters choose a party, not a candidate. 200 Members of the 400-member National Assembly are chosen by the percentage of votes their party receives in each of the 9 provinces. The other 200 MPs are selected by the percentage of votes their party wins nationally. This method ensures at least some regional representation as well as almost perfectly proportional outcomes in terms of translating votes to seats.
This level of fair representation stands in stark contrast to the electoral outcomes in the United States. In the 2012 U.S. Congressional Elections, the Democratic Party received 1.4 million more votes than the Republican Party, but won 33 fewer seats. While FairVote does not advocate for the implementation of the closed party list form of proportional representation practiced in South Africa in the U.S., we do believe in fair representation voting, a candidate-based form of proportional representation in moderate-sized multi-seat districts that would preserve our individualistic political culture while achieving a House of Representatives that is more representative of voters on the whole.