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 His Excellency Cyril Ramaphosa, President
The fifth post-apartheid President of South Africa is His Excellency Cyril Ramaphosa. He assumed office on 18 December 2017. He was elected following the resignation of Jacob Zuma.