South Africa: Historical franchise arrangements

Extracted from: LODGE, T 2002, "South Africa" IN Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa (2002), edited by Tom Lodge, Denis Kadima and David Pottie, EISA, 292-294.

In 1910 the Union of South Africa was constituted as a self governing Dominion from four British colonies; the Cape, Natal, the Orange River Colony and the Transvaal. The Orange River and Transvaal Colonies were formerly self-governing Afrikaner republics which had lost their autonomy during the Anglo-Boer war. Each of these territories had a history of electoral politics before Union but in the case of the republics the franchise was completely racially exclusive and limited to white settlers only. In the Cape and Natal the franchise was qualified by property and education requirements. From 1853, when representative government began, the voters roll in the Cape incorporated Africans and coloureds; by 1910 their numbers represented 15% of the electorate. In Natal, by 1909, only six Africans could vote and the Asian franchise was limited to those who had qualified by 1893. After that date Asians could not acquire franchise rights for national parliamentary elections, although they retained municipal and provincial voting rights. The South Africa Act which established the Union ensured that these arrangements would continue subject to any change a subsequent Union Parliament might make. The presence of black voters on the rolls for the Cape and Natal was protected by the requirement that no one could be removed from the roll without a two thirds majority in both houses of Parliament.

In 1930 white women were enfranchised without qualifications and in the following year the vote was extended to all white men. The qualifications in the Cape and Natal remained for black voters. The minimum voting age for whites was reduced from 21 years to 18 years in 1958. African voters were removed from the common roll in 1936 and in the Cape qualified Africans could vote for three white "native representatives". In addition, a complicated system of indirect elections was established nation wide, to send four (white) native senators to the upper house. At the same time, Africans could elect 12 African representatives to an advisory Native Representative Council. These arrangements persisted until 1959.

Between 1959 and 1994 the only elected bodies which represented Africans were those which functioned within the boundaries of the homeland system. By 1994 ten separate homeland governments existed, each with their own arrangements for elected representation. The first elected homeland territorial assembly was instituted in the Transkei in 1963. Of its 109 members only 45 were elected, the rest held their seats as ex officio chiefs.

Meanwhile, 50 000 coloureds were removed from the common roll for parliamentary elections in 1957 after enlargements of the Senate and the Supreme Court enabled the government to remove the entrenched status of coloured voting rights. Instead, coloureds were accorded voting rights for special white representatives; by 1963 coloured voter registration had declined 80%, to under 10 000. Indians and coloureds were removed from the common municipal rolls in Natal and the Cape in 1964 and 1968 respectively. They were re-enfranchised in 1984 through the tricameral constitution, which established a separate House of Representatives for coloured own affairs and a corresponding House of Delegates for Indians.

The franchises for all these segregated institutions were qualified by assigned ethnic or racial status, but within such limitations they were open to all adults. Generally, all South African elections were conducted within single member constituencies in which the winner was the candidate with the largest share of the votes.

Racially segregated elections for African, Indian, and Coloured voters did not usually attract their enthusiastic participation. There were, however, exceptions to this generalisation. In the Transkei in 1963 the Assembly elections were contested and won overwhelmingly by an opposition party, the Democratic Party (although the subsequent government was formed by the pro-Apartheid Transkei National Independence Party which enjoyed the support of the non-elected, ex officio chief majority). 880 000 voters participated in this election, a substantial majority of the resident adult population of the homeland. Voting turnout declined sharply in subsequent elections in the Transkei, not least because of the requirement that illiterate voters (60% of the electorate) had to state their preferences in front of polling officers who were often appointed by the ruling party.

Another example of relatively high black turn-out in a racially segregated election was the poll in 1969 for the first Coloured Representative Council. 293 000 voters out of a registered electorate of 570 000 took part in this election. In the first elections for the tricameral parliament of 1984, turn-out amongst coloured and Indian voters was estimated to be 20% and 40% respectively of the eligible electorates, though it declined sharply in the 1989 poll. In many of apartheid's policies, the formal commitment to representative democracy was rendered meaningless by repression, gerrymandering and apathy. In Bophuthatswana's second election in 1985 only the ruling party put up candidates and no voting took place. In KwaZulu, Inkatha was the only political party with legal sanction.

Despite the endurance, amongst white South Africans, of a dominant party political regime between 1948 and 1994, their more or less racially exclusive electoral politics featured vigorous competition between parties and fairly high levels of voter commitment. Throughout much of its rule, the National Party benefited from constituency demarcations which enhanced the political significance of certain geographical groups of voters; effectively some votes were worth five times as much as others. Voter interest in elections was sustained by the degree of ideological antipathy which existed between parties and the strong sense in which, until the 1980s, political divisions amongst whites corresponded with ethnic and other kinds of social distinction. Within white South Africa party politics there remained, for a long time, "a politics of belonging". This had begun to change by the late 1980s. In 1987, for example, half the English speaking population voted for the (traditionally Afrikaner) National Party. As voters became less fixed in their party preferences they were also more likely to abstain. White South African voter turn out peaked in 1958 at 90%. By 1975 it had fallen to 75% and in 1987 white electoral participation was down to 68%. The reasons for this decline may have included the diminished significance of Parliament which resulted from the 1983 Constitution, as well as growing consensus and social homogeneity within a predominantly urban and middle class white population.