The South African general elections: 1974

The 1974 general election was held on 24 April 1974, a year earlier than required by law. The Prime Minister, B. J. Vorster, explained that the election would be held earlier in order to ensure that a strong government was in power to meet the domestic and international crises which faced the country. He said that “To be able to act effectively in the best interests of South Africa, there should be no confusion in South Africa and abroad and that it was the objective of the voters to have a strong government in power again to serve and protect the highest interests of South Africa.”

Another reason for holding an early election was to take advantage of the divisions in the United Party (UP), the main opposition party in Parliament. The UP had experienced internal divisions since its formation in 1934. The UP’s conflicts before the 1974 elections indicated a fundamental change in its position as the main Parliamentary opposition. The continuation of a conflict between liberals and conservatives within the UP intensified during 1973 when Harry Schwarz, the leader of the Party in the Transvaal Provincial Council, wrested the leadership of the Transvaal Party from Marais Steyn, a leading conservative.

The main issue which caused the divisions in the Party was its participation in the Schlebusch Commission, a parliamentary commission appointed to inquire into aspects of national security. The reports it issued into student affairs and into the Wilgespruit community led to the banning of National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) and South African Student Organization (SASO) leaders, the deportation of a leading member of the Wilgespruit community, and the harassment of other groups. The UP’s involvement in the Schlebusch Commission was broadly interpreted as a sign that the official opposition in Parliament was a junior partner in an alliance with the Nationalist Government. The Progressive Party (PP) and students (who were affected by the Commission's activities) attacked the UP on this issue during the year preceding the election. Mrs Cathy Taylor, another UP MP, criticised the Party's participation in the Commission, and she resigned.  

Five parties contested the 1974 election. The UP put up 108 candidates, the NP 135 candidates, the PP 21, the Herstigte Nasionale Party (HNP) 50 and the Democratic Party (DP) 8 candidates. The election took the form of a contest to decide the shape and future of the Parliamentary opposition. The PP’s election campaign was around the issue of the quality of the Opposition: “The Progressives emphasised their own effectiveness in opposing, not appeasing, the authoritarianism of the Nationalist government. They claimed an incomparably better record than the United Party in opposing the government on a wide range of issues relating to the conditions under which blacks work and live, and offered economic expansion to the country, making it possible for an economy based on free enterprise to raise the standard of living of all our people.”

The 1974 general election was again won by the NP with 119 seats, the UP won 41 seats, and the PP won six seats in the 165-seat House of Assembly.    

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Last updated : 15-Apr-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 24-Feb-2014