History of elections in South Africa

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The South African general elections: 1994

In September 1993, the South African legislature approved the setting up of a multiparty Transitional Executive Council (TEC) to manage South Africa’s transition to democracy. Two months later, the Interim Constitution under which South Africa was to be governed during the transitional period was approved. On 2 February 1994, State President F.W. de Klerk announced that elections were to be held. Political parties were given a specified time to register, and only 19 political parties registered. The 1994 elections marked the end of Apartheid in South Africa. The country-wide elections were held on 27 April 1994, and were observed by a 60-member Commonwealth Observer Group (COG) under the leadership of a former Prime Minister of Jamaica, Michael Manley.

South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 were a conclusion of four years of expanded negotiations which had begun in 1990 with the unbanning of liberation movements, including the African National Congress (ANC),South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and a commitment to a negotiated settlement by the then ruling Nationalist Party (NP).The four-year transition period, from February 1990 to April 1994, was characterised by political violence between the ANC and IFP, manifested as a low intensity war over the previous two decades.  Right-wing elements within the National Party (NP) government used a more threatening strategy that was to have an influential effect on the negotiations process and the final settlement: they set up a “third force”of state security operatives and funded Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) paramilitaries to attack the ANC and civilians. The South African transition process, and the negotiations leading to the elections, attracted a substantial amount of attention both locally and internationally.

It was the first election in which all South Africans, registered on a common voters roll, could vote. The election took place under the direction of Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).The IEC is the institution responsible for running and administering elections. The IEC was established in terms of the 1993 Interim Constitution and later through the 1996 Act of Parliament. The IEC’s main aim is to strengthen constitutional democracy through the delivery of free and fair elections.

The elections were the end of a long and harsh struggle for freedom within South Africa, and a continuous international campaign against Apartheid. The National Assembly general election was contested by 19 political parties: African National Congress (ANC), National Party (NP), Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), Freedom Front (FF), Democratic Party (DP), African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), Africa Muslim Party (AMP), African Moderates Congress (AMC), Dikwankwetla Party of South Africa (DPSA), Federal Party (FP), Minority Front (MF), Sport Organisation for Collective Contributions and  Equal Rights (SOCCER), African Democratic Movement (ADM), Women’s Right Peace Party (WRPP), Ximoko Progressive Party (XPP), Keep It Straight & Simple Party (KISS), Worker’s List Party (WLP), and Luso-South Africa Party (LUSO).  

During the election campaign, and according to the ANC’s manifesto, the party had committed itself to building a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa. The ANC emphasised the need to honour workers’ rights, to eliminate rural poverty, and to prioritise education, housing and health services. The National Party (NP) had characterised itself as the party of law and order, supporting a free market economy and being committed to a non-racial democracy in which minority and cultural rights would be protected.

The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) had also advocated free economy as well as the eradication of corruption, exploitation and intimidation. It supported equal opportunities for all and the promotion of worthy customs and cultures. The Freedom Front (FF) advocated for the promotion of the security, freedom and peaceful co-existence of the Afrikaner volk (people), the Democratic Party (DP) advocated for the ultimate worth of each individual and the value of a free market economy, and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) committed itself for the true liberation of the oppressed and exploited South African people.

On 26 April 1994, South Africa’s new flag was raised. South Africa’s new Constitution and Bill of Rights took effect on 27 April 1994. The system of “homelands” for the Black population was abolished. With the policy of racial apartheid (separation) abolished, Nelson Mandela, confirmed that South Africa’s population was free at last. A total of 19.5 million South Africans cast their votes in the first democratic election.

The African National Congress (ANC) under the leadership of the late Nelson Mandela won the  vast majority of votes with 12 237 655 (62.9%), the National Party (NP) under the leadership of F W de Klerk won 983 690 (22%) of the national votes, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) under the leadership of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi won 2 058 294 (10%) of the national votes, Freedom Front (FF) under the leadership of Constand Viljoen won 424 555 (2.17%) of the national votes, Democratic Party (DP) under the leadership of  Zach de Beer won 338 426 (1.73%) of the national votes, Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) won 243 478 of the national votes (1.25%), and African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) under the leadership of Reverend Kenneth Meshoe  won 88 104 of the national votes (0.45%). The international observers pronounced the voting to have been appreciably free and fair.

The ANC won 252 seats in the NP won 82 seats, IFP won 43 seats, the FF won 9 seats, DP won 7 seats, PAC won 5 seats and the ACDP won only 2 seats in the National Assembly.

On 9 May 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected the first Black South African President by the National Assembly. The next day, he was inaugurated as Head of State. In line with the Interim Constitution, a Government of National Unity (GNU) was formed, and the IFP, NP and ANC were represented in Cabinet in proportion to the number of seats each political party won in the elections. F W de Klerk (former South African President) and Thabo Mbeki were appointed Deputy Presidents. The IFP leader, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, was appointed Minister of Home Affairs. Cyril Ramaphosa, the Secretary-General of ANC at that time, was chosen to head the Constitutional Assembly. After the establishment of the democratic government, South Africa was admitted into Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and resumed its seat in the General Assembly of United Nation (UN).

On 20 May 1994, the Senate, under the control of the ANC, after its victory in seven of the nine provinces, met for the first time. The opening session of the bicameral Parliament took place four days later. The Constitutional Assembly met and it was tasked with finalising the text of the Constitution.  In July 1994, South Africa was readmitted to the Commonwealth of Nations. 

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• Commonwealth Observer Group and Secretariat, (1999). National and Provincial elections in South Africa. 2nd June 1999.
•  Election dates South Africa. Journal of African elections. February to July 2009. Johannesburg: Electoral Institute of Southern Africa.
•  Lodge, T. (1995).The South African General Election, April 1994: Results, Analysis and Implications. African Affairs, Vol. 94, No. 377, pp. 471-500.
•  Southall, R and John Daniel, J. (2009). The South African election of 2009. Africa Spectrum, Vol. 44, No. 2, pp.111-124.
•  Southall, R. (1994). The South African Elections of 1994: The Remaking of a Dominant-Party State. The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 32, No. 4, pp. 629-655. 

Last updated : 29-Apr-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 27-Feb-2014