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South Africa : Constitution and politics


Republic with executive president
Parliament of the Republic of South Africa

The constitution came into effect in February 1997. It provides inter alia for the supremacy of the constitution, a federal state, a bill of rights, universal adult suffrage, regular multiparty elections, recognition of traditional leaders, 11 official languages, and democracy-buttressing institutions such as the Public Protector, and Commissions for Human Rights and Gender Equality. It also includes a Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities. The bicameral legislature comprises the 400-seat National Assembly – elected every five years by universal adult suffrage under proportional representation – and the 90-seat National Council of Provinces with direct representation of members of provincial governments. The president is elected by the National Assembly and can serve a maximum of two five-year terms. The deputy president and cabinet are appointed by the president.


In the third democratic general election, in April 2004, the African National Congress (ANC) won a decisive mandate, securing 70 per cent of the votes, while the Democratic Alliance (DA) took 12 per cent (and 50 seats) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) seven per cent (28 seats). The ANC achieved a majority in seven of the nine provinces and, with 279 seats, gained the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution, though they had not promised any changes in their manifesto.

In December 2007, Jacob Zuma defeated President Thabo Mbeki in the ANC leadership elections, paving the way for his candidacy in the 2009 presidential elections. In the same month, the ANC National Executive Committee ‘recalled’ Mbeki from the presidency, he resigned, and Parliament elected ANC deputy leader Kgalema Motlanthe to succeed him.

A new political party, the Congress of the People (COPE), was launched in December 2008 under the leadership of Mosiuoa Lekota, former chairman of the ANC and a close ally of Mbeki.

Facing the challenge of COPE and the DA, the ANC nevertheless won 66 per cent of votes (264 seats) in the parliamentary elections in April 2009. The DA, led by Helen Zille, received 17 per cent of votes (67 seats) and COPE seven per cent (30 seats). Turnout was 77 per cent. At the first sitting of the National Assembly in May 2009, Zuma was formally elected President; and he then appointed Motlanthe Deputy President. COPE’s candidate in the presidential contest was Bishop Mvume Dandala rather than its leader, Lekota.

Nelson Mandela died on 5 December 2013.

President Zuma and the ANC won the general election on 7 May 2014, securing 249 seats with 62.2 per cent of the vote. The DA – led by Helen Zille – won 89 seats (22.2 per cent of the vote), Economic Freedom Fighters – led by former ANC member Julius Malema – 25 seats (6.4 per cent) and IFP ten seats (2.4 per cent). Turnout was 73 per cent. On 21 May 2014 the National Assembly re-elected Jacob Zuma President and he was sworn in for a second term on 24 May.

Head of government

HE Mr Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, President
President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma assumed his second term in office as President on 24 May 2014 following the African National Congress (ANC) victory in general elections held on 7 May 2014. Mr Zuma had first taken office as President in May 2009. He had also been President of the (ANC) after taking over its leadership in December 2007. He had served as Deputy President of South Africa from 1999 to 2005. Mr Zuma became an active member of the ANC during the 1950s. He was recruited into Umkhonto Wesizwe and participated in sabotage operations in KwaZulu-Natal. He was arrested in June 1963 and sentenced in August 1963 to 10 years imprisonment on Robben Island. He was 21 years old when he began serving his sentence. He was released from Robben Island Prison in 1973. He began the task of rebuilding the ANC’s underground structures. He went into exile in Swaziland and Mozambique in 1975 after a mission was compromised. He was detained briefly in 1976 by the Swaziland authorities and then deported to Mozambique. In 1984, President Zuma was appointed the Deputy Chief Representative of the ANC, the year the Nkomati Accord was signed between Mozambique and South Africa. The ANC selected President Zuma to lead the compact advance group that came into South Africa to prepare for the commencement of Talks-about-Talks after the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of political organizations in South Africa. Later he was involved in negotiations which resulted in the signing of the Groote-Schuur Minute, an agreement that outlined important decisions regarding the return of exiles and the release of political prisoners. The ANC at this time also began re-organising itself inside the country. In November 1990, President Zuma was elected Chairperson of the ANC’s Southern Natal region. In 1994, as the country prepared for the first democratic elections, Mr Zuma was nominated as the ANC candidate for the Premiership of Natal. The ANC lost the elections to the IFP. He was appointed MEC of Economic Affairs and Tourism for the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government. In 1999 Mr Zuma was appointed as the Deputy President of the Republic. His negotiation skills were also later used by President Mandela in negotiating a peace agreement in Burundi in 2002. He was born on 12 April 1942 at KwaNxamalala in Nkandla, northern KwaZulu-Natal.