On May 7th 2014, South Africans elected a new National Assembly. It was the fifth election held in South Africa under conditions of universal adult suffrage since the end of the  apartheid era and also the first held since the death of Nelson Mandela[1]. On May 21st, South Africans elected female politician, Baleka Mbete as speaker of the National Assembly for a five-years term. 


The National Assembly is composed of 400 members who are elected every 5 years. They are elected through a closed-list proportional representation system. This is broken into a national and regional list, of which elect 200 members of the National Assembly. In the regional tier there are 9 multi-member districts, each corresponding to a province, with seats allocated in proportion to population.[2] In both tiers, the electoral system is closed list proportional representation. The Speaker presides over the assembly and they are assisted by the Deputy Speaker. The current speaker is Baleka Mbete and the Deputy Speaker is Lechesa Tsenoli.[3]

In the 2014, Baleka Mbete was elected as the female Speaker of the National Assembly. Within the Assembly, President Jacob Zuma's African National Congress (ANC) won the elections, taking 249 of the 400 seats at stake in the National Assembly. The main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), led by Ms. Helen Zille, came in second with 89 seats, up from 67 in the previous legislature.[4]


The Constitution of South Africa (1996) lays down in Article 1 the fundamental values on which the Republic is founded and includes among these non-sexism. The equality clause of the constitution includes a provisor that is aimed at ensuring substantive rather than merely formal equality: "Equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms. To promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination may be taken." (1996, Article 9.2.). Though the Constitution does not specify those who have been disadvantaged by unfair discrimination the South African courts have interpreted it to include women.[5]

The Constitution does not provide for quotas to ensure adequate representation of women in elected public bodies, nor are any legal quotas established for national or provincial elections. Despite the absence of effective quota legislation, at local government level women's representation in local government has climbed steadily from 19% in after the 1995 elections to 29.6% after the 2000 local elections to 40% after the 2006 elections[6]. Furthermore, as of 2009 South Africa ranked 3rd for womens representaion in parliment.[7]


Women Political Participation

Baleka Mbete was elected as Speaker of the National Assembly of South Africa on May 21st 2014 beating her rival DA candidate and former Eastern Cape Premier Nosimo Balindlela. She previously served as Deputy President of South Africa from 2008 to 2009 under Kgalema Motlanthe. She was previously Speaker of the National Assembly of South Africa from 2004 to 2008. She was elected National Chairperson of the ANC in 2007 and reelected in 2012.

While President Jacob Zuma's African National Congress (ANC) won the presendential elections, the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), led by Ms. Helen Zille, came in second. Zille is a former journalist and anti-apartheid activist and was one of the journalists who exposed the truth behind the death of Steve Biko.  She also worked with the Black Sash and other pro-democracy groups during the 1980s. In the political arena, Zille has worked in all three tiers of government – as the Western Cape province's education MEC (1999–2004), a Member of Parliament (2004–2006),  Mayor of Cape Town (2006–2009), and as Premier of the Western Cape (2009–present).[8]


South African political discourse, while often brutal and sometimes puerile across the board, does not treat men and women the same way.  It is evident in the routine sexualising of female politicians; to take just one example, the comments of ANC Youth League leaders Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu in 2009 suggesting that Helen Zille had stocked her Cabinet with “boyfriends and concubines”[9].

Nevertheless, the ANC has had a policy to commint to a minimal 30% quota for the representation of women since 1994[10]. However, the head of its own Women’s League says South Africa is not ready to have a female president[11].  Following the 52nd National Congress held in Polekwane in 2007 the quota was increased [12] to 50%. Consequently, 50% of the people elected to the National Executive Committee at the Congress were women, as were 50% of the members of the National Working Committee. The other opposition parties have no quotas and particular representation of women is restricted to delegates from the women's wing forming part of party leadership structures at various levels. 

Though the 50/50 quota policy is in place in many political parties, women's representation in parliament dropped from 44 percent in the 2009 elections to 40 percent in the 7 May 2014 polls, while that of women in provincial legislatures dropped from 41 to 37 percent. The proportion of women premiers dropped from 55 percent in 2009 to 22 percent in 2014. In the 2011 local elections, women's representation dropped from 40 percent to 38 percent.[13]

 Furthermore,  the Democratic Alliance party (DA) has prominent female representation at the top in the form of Zille, Mazibuko and Cape Town Mayor, Patricia de Lille, but it’s worth noting that only three women head the provincial party lists recently revealed by the DA[14].

Gender Links chief executive officer, Colleen Lowe Morna suggests the reason for the drop in female political participation in South Africa, "is that South Africa has steadfastly refused to adopt a legislated quota, leaving this to the whims of political parties." [15]

In another show of blatant gender blindness, the Inkhatha Freedom Party (IFP) continues to demonstrate a disturbing decline after each election. Out of the ten seats in parliament, only two seats (21%) are held by women. This is a 1% decline from 2009, and a 14% decline from 2004. The decline also extends to the provincial level, down from 35% in 2009 to 20% women in 2014[16].

Again, in the 2009 elections, the ANC managed to get 50/50 representation of premiers. In 2014, of the eight provinces that the ANC won, men lead seven, while one province is led by a woman (13%). Nationally, there are seven (78%) male premiers and two female premiers (22%)[17]. Cabinet is where women's representation should be equal to that of men as the President has absolute control. But women now constitute 15 (41%) of the 37-member cabinet, and 16 (44%) of the 36 deputy ministers[18].

Just before the elections, the national assembly passed the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill. If approved by the National Council of provinces, the bill will oblige both public and private entities to ensure gender parity. South Africa could have made a head start with its just ended elections. "Missing the mark at this place and time sends out the sad message that patriarchy is still alive and well," noted Lowe Morna[19].



For South Africa, there has been progress in increasing female political participation on paper, and compared to many other African countries there is a large female inclusion in politics. However, what is key here is ensuring that the quotas put in place for women are actively followed and sustained. Furthermore, eradicating sexist discourse in the politics is also very important to move towards a fairer an equal democracy.


Women’s Political Representation Statistics


Women’s Political Representation

As of 2009

As of 2014

Female members of parliament

174/400 (43.50%)[20]

163/400 (40.75%)[21]






[6] LETSHOLO, S 2006 Democratic Local Government Elections in South Africa: A Critical Review [PDF document], EISA Occasional Paper No 42.

[20] IPU PARLINE database; South Africa, National Assembly, http://www.ipu.org/parline-e/reports/arc/2291_09.htm

[21] IPU PARLINE database; South Africa, National Assembly, http://www.ipu.org/parline-e/reports/2291_A.htm

Go to top