Republic of South Africa

views updated

Republic of South Africa

Type of Government

The Republic of South Africa is a parliamentary democracy, with power shared by the president and the legislature. Its shift from a minority-controlled regime that denied its majority black population the rights of citizenship to a legitimate, multiparty democracy controlled by that same formerly disenfranchised group is one of the most remarkable political events in the history of the African continent.


For centuries the fertile lands located at the bottom of the African continent, buttressed by the Atlantic and Indian oceans, were inhabited by a succession of Bantu-speaking tribes, the largest of which were the Xhosa and Zulu. Europeans arrived in the area beginning with the Portuguese in 1488, followed by the Dutch in the early 1600s. Later waves of European settlers included the Huguenots, who fled the religious persecution of Protestants in late seventeenth-century France, then Germans and the British. The British and the Afrikaners, as the population of mixed Dutch, French, and German ancestry called themselves, began to battle one another for control of land and resources.

Tensions between these groups increased considerably in the final decades of the nineteenth century after immense deposits of gold and diamonds were unearthed in South Africa. Large-scale mines were established, which relied on a near-slave type of labor supplied by blacks in the Transvaal, a state established in the 1850s by Afrikaner farmers known as Boers. Two separate wars were fought between 1880 and 1902 between the British and the Boers, and finally in 1910 both sides agreed to join together for formation as the Union of South Africa, a dominion of the United Kingdom. Its constitution, like many governments in the colonial era, denied the native black population their political rights, and the South Africa Native National Congress (later the African National Congress, or ANC) was formed in 1912 to agitate for black political rights.

In 1934 South Africa became a sovereign state within the British Empire, though the Afrikaners had come to dominate its political sphere. Afrikaners’ anti-British sentiment coalesced around the National Party (NP), which came to power in 1948 elections. The new government, which had a prime minister and parliamentary form of government based on the British model, immediately began to pass a series of laws that severely restricted black life. Political and legal rights were codified according to four different racial groups—Africans (black), whites, coloreds (those of mixed race), and Asians—and the majority black population became non-citizens in a system formulated by the NP called apartheid, or “separateness.” Laws prohibited intermarriage between blacks and whites, banned black political organizations such as the ANC, dictated where blacks could live and work, and imposed an inferior educational system. After thirty years of violent unrest, apartheid finally ended in the early 1990s. When the first free elections were held in 1994 and a new constitution was implemented, the violence that devastated the country decreased to almost nil.

Government Structure

South Africa’s current constitution, which went into effect in February 1997, provides for an executive branch headed by the president, who serves as chief of state. The president is elected by the lower house of South Africa’s legislature, the National Assembly, and the balloting takes place after parliamentary elections. By tradition, the office of president is held by the head of the political party with the majority of National Assembly seats. Depending on when those elections are held, the president serves a term between three and five years, and is limited to two terms in office. The president chooses a cabinet from among the ranks of the National Assembly, and then a cabinet minister to serve as deputy president.

During the apartheid era, South Africa’s bicameral parliament consisted of the House of Assembly and the Senate. Under the 1997 constitution, the lower house is the National Assembly, with four hundred members who are elected by proportional representation. The number of seats allocated to each party depends on the percentage of votes they received in the General Election, as the parliamentary elections are called. In balloting, half of the candidates for each party come from regional party lists for each of the nine provinces. The other half of the ticket is composed of names that appear on a national party list; voters choose one party’s ticket, not individual representatives. The upper house of South Africa’s parliament is the National Council of Provinces (NCP). It has ninety members, ten from each of South Africa’s nine provinces. They are elected to office by their respective provincial parliaments. Legislators of both houses serve five-year terms. Each of the two bodies may initiate legislation, but the NCP is granted special authority over some fiscal and budgetary matters.

South Africa’s highest court is its Constitutional Court, which is charged with reviewing the constitutionality of acts of parliament and presidential decrees. The president appoints judges to its eleven-member bench, and they serve twelve-year terms. The other high court in the South African judicial system is the Supreme Court of Appeal, the final court of appeal for all criminal and civil cases. Below this tier are the High Courts, which have regional authority, and the lower courts, called Magistrates Courts, which are the courts of first instance. Until 1987 all judges in the South African judicial system were white. Codes are based on both Roman-Dutch and English common law. Trial by jury ended in 1969.

South Africa is divided into nine provinces. Each is headed by a premier and has its own provincial assembly, with members drawn by party list from the next level of administrative subdivision, the district. Municipalities serve as the lowest level of government and may be either metropolitan, in the case of the large cities, or local. One unusual feature of South Africa’s system of government is the absence of a federal capital. Its administrative capital is Pretoria, while parliament sits in Cape Town. The judicial capital is Bloemfontein, but the Constitutional Court is headquartered in Johannesburg.

Suffrage is universal in South Africa at age eighteen and also gives voting privileges to those who have achieved permanent residency status. Human rights enjoy an extraordinarily high degree of protection under the terms of the 1997 constitution: the document bars discrimination in all forms, grants a broad range of civil liberties, and its criminal-code section distinctly enumerates the rights of detainees and prisoners. This Bill of Rights is considered one of the most liberal in the world, on par with Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the European (Union) Convention on Human Rights.

Political Parties and Factions

Since the first non-racial elections in South Africa were held in 1994, the once-outlawed African National Congress (ANC) has dominated the political sphere. The leading opposition party is the Democratic Alliance (DA), a progressive liberal party formed in 2000. The DA developed from other political groups, some of which trace their history to the National Party (NP) of the apartheid era, established by white politicians who opposed the draconian racial policies of the NP. The NP attempted a name change to the New National Party in the 1990s, but eventually disbanded due to lack of support. Other contenders for power include the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), led by a Zulu chief, which battled the ANC for popular support—often by violent means—during the apartheid era. The Freedom Front Plus (FF+) is a party that depends on support from the Afrikaner minority.

Party politics in South Africa is complicated by what is known as the Floor Crossing amendment to the constitution, which lifted a rule that forced legislators and even elected officials at the local level to give up their office if they switched party allegiance. Under the new rule, National Assembly members are allowed a specific window of time during their five-year terms to “cross the floor” and take their seats with another party. However, a clause in the regulations requires that 10 percent of a party’s representatives must agree to change allegiance in order for any one member to be allowed to defect to another party. There is immense debate over the practice, with those who oppose it claiming it violates the principles of democracy and nullifies the original wishes of the voters when they cast their ballot according to party lists.

Major Events

For many years, the history of South Africa’s political system was defined by notorious acts and outright bloodbaths committed by government forces. The National Party’s rise to power in 1948 was followed by the passage of a number of harsh measures designed to maintain firm control over a majority black population that neared 75 percent. In 1960 the Pass Laws were enacted which forced blacks to carry an identification card when outside of their designated black homelands. A person’s address and place of employment were listed, along with other details, and only employers or government officials—defined by law as white—were allowed to enter information into the pass book. A person found without his or her pass book or in possession of one with missing information was subject to immediate arrest and imprisonment. Opposition to the coming enforcement of the Pass Law in 1960 coalesced around protests in Sharpeville, a black township in the province of Gauteng. The demonstrations ended when police fired on the crowd and killed sixty-nine demonstrators. The debacle led to the outlawing of both the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) and the jailing of their leadership.

In 1976 another mass protest occurred in the black township of Johannesburg called Soweto over the imposition of the Afrikaner language in black schools. This time, more than five hundred died when government forces fired on demonstrators, many of whom were children and teenagers. Photographs of the tragedy, including anguished teenagers carrying a bloodied child amidst a backdrop of shanty homes and unpaved streets, appeared in news accounts of the uprising around the world, and served to intensify international opposition to a government that authorized the use of live ammunition on children. Economic sanctions were imposed on South Africa with the intent of pressuring the ruling National Party to dismantle apartheid, but instead the country became a virtual police state over the next few years. Apartheid’s end finally began with the 1989 election of F. W. de Klerk (1936–), the National Party leader who urged a change in his party’s platform to begin formal talks with the anti-apartheid side and then won support from a white electorate weary from decades of violence.

Twenty-First Century

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in 1996 to investigate human-rights abuses that occurred between 1960 and 1994. The commission was allowed to grant amnesty to those it deemed had been guilty of politically motivated crimes, and also set financial-compensation amounts for victims. Several years of painful testimony dominated South African daily news from the TRC hearings, including nearly two years of daily televised sessions, but the addressing of human-rights abuses in such a public forum was deemed a cathartic process and one that helped the nation of forty-seven million heal and come to a remarkably violence-free new era of coexistence.

South African politics continue to be dominated by the ANC, whose leadership passed from Nelson Mandela (1918–), released from prison in 1990 after twenty-seven years of incarceration, to Thabo Mbeki (1942–) in 1997.

Arnold. Guy. The New South Africa. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 2000.

Lodge, Tom. Politics in South Africa: From Mandela to Mbeki. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.

Waldmeir, Patti. Anatomy of a Miracle: The End of Apartheid and the Birth of the New South Africa. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.