By: Rivka (Becky) Zelikson

South Africa held its sixth elections since the end of apartheid on May 8th, 2019. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) party sought to retain its majority status and re-elect Cyril Ramaphosa as President. The other major contenders were the Democratic Alliance (DA) party led by Mmusi Maimane, and the smaller left-leaning Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party led by Julius Malema.

The ANC won the elections, receiving 57.50% of the vote, with the DA receiving 20.77% and the EFF 10.79%. The elections saw both the ANC and DA lose seats, while the EFF gained seats.

South Africa has a bicameral parliament, composed of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces. There are 400 seats in the National Assembly, with members of parliament directly elected via a proportional representation system; 200 members are selected from national lists, and 200 members are selected from regional lists. The National Council of Provinces comprises 90 members, of which 54 members are appointed by parties represented in the provincial legislatures, and the remaining 36 members are special delegates representing provincial legislatures. All members serve five year terms, and together elect a President, who also serves for five years.

Since December 2017, women representatives held 164 (41.8%) out of 392 seats in the lower house, with 8 seats vacant, and 19 (35.2%) out of the 54 seats in the Upper House. There are currently no mandated gender quotas, although the ANC instituted a 50/50 gender quota across its candidate lists.

Women’s Political Participation

Women comprised 44% of all candidates put forward in this elections. However, most of the women were relegated to lower ranks in the candidate list, with very few making parties’ top 5 positions. Out of the 48 parties contesting the elections, 8 did not have any women in their top 5, and only 7 parties put forward a woman as their premier national candidate. Even the ANC, which prides itself on its gender equality measures, only allocated 36% of their top 25 positions to women. This state of affairs meant there was virtually no possibility for women to become Vice President or President of South Africa in this cycle of elections. Nevertheless, following the 2019 vote, women’s representation in the National Assembly increased from 164 seats (41.8%) to 175 seats (43.8%).

Having won in 8 provinces, the ANC was able to elect 8 Premiers to govern. Out of the 7 Premiers-elect announced at the time of writing, only 2 were women. To compensate for this gender disparity, however, the ANC declared that in provinces where there will be a male Premier, at least 60% of the executive council will be composed of women. Where the Premier is a woman, 50% of the executive council will be women. In addition, speakers in all provinces will be women, regardless of the gender of the Premier.

The two women who will serve as Premiers are Sefora Hixsonia Ntombela (Sisi) Ntombela and Refilwe Mtsweni. Sisi Ntombela has been steadily climbing through the ranks of the ANC, serving as Mayor of Tweeling municipality, Deputy President of the ANC Women’s League, a member of the Executive Council of Free State, and the incumbent Premier of Free State. She will now serve her second term as Premier.

Refilwe Mtsweni was elected to the Mpumalanga Provincial Legislature in 2014, and was subsequently appointed Acting Premier in 2017. As she was officially inaugurated as Premier in 2018, meaning this will also be her second term as Premier.

Another notable woman in the 2019 general was Patricia de Lille. De Lille boasts a long career in politics, having served as the Mayor of Cape Town, formed her own party and later merged with the Democratic Alliance. She has been a member of the National Assembly for 16 years. In this election, she left the DA in favor of starting her own party, GOOD. De Lille stated that her party’s mandate is to fight for spatial, social, economic, and environmental justice:

Priority goal number one is to address the fact that the face of poverty in South Africa is that of a woman of colour. This fact was underscored by the unemployment figures published this week by Statistics SA. We know that women bear the harshest burdens of food, water and tenure security, and that their children – especially girl children – will also find themselves trapped in the cycle of poverty unless there is drastic intervention. When we affirm the role of women in society we will break the cycle,” she said in a statement after securing two seats in the next parliament.

GOOD was one of the six parties who were led by women in the 2019 elections. The only other woman-led party that has won a seat in parliament was National Freedom Party (NFP) led by Zanele kaMagwaza-Msibi.

In addition to running for office, women strongly participated in these general elections as voters. Although overall voter turnout dropped from 73.55% in the 2014 election to 65.99% in the 2019 election, the number of women registered to vote stayed relatively steady. Out of the 26.76 million registered voters, 55% were female, and women were also more likely to turn up to vote on election day than men.

There were no reports of violence against women voters or candidates, or any other sources of female disenfranchisement. However, women must still choose between voting and their other duties and responsibilities, such as breastfeeding.

Beyond the electoral process, South Africa ratified both CEDAW and the Maputo Protocol. On the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index (GII) South Africa ranks 90th out of 159 countries, making it the highest ranking in the southern African region. The Government of South Africa has also adopted the South African Protection from Harassment Act in 2011, the first such act in the southern African region. The Act includes mental, psychological and economic harm resulting from harassment, and provides protection for incidences of stalking and cyber-stalking.

In addition, through its National Plan Vision for 2030, the Government committed to mainstreaming gender issues into policy planning and promoting women’s economic empowerment. While the state of women’s rights and gender equality has improved since the end of apartheid, women, especially black women, remain economically marginalized and face high rates of rape and domestic violence. Rape and violent attacks also disproportionately target lesbian and transgender women of color.

Due to the gap between policy and implementation when it comes to combating violence against women, South African women and gender-non-conforming people called for a #TotalShutdown protest in August 2018 to bring these issues to the top of the national priority list. The activists handed a list of demands to the government and were successful in bringing the country to a halt. As a result of this pressure, President Cyril Ramaphosa launched a Declaration against Gender-Based Violence and Femicide and announced the opening of Booysens Magistrate’s Court which would handle Sexual Offences.


The ANC won the 2019 general elections with 57.50% of the vote. Women comprised 44% of all candidates, but were mostly relegated to lower positions within their parties’ ranks. Notable exceptions were the women-led parties GOOD, and the National Freedom Party, both of whom won two seats. While the ANC lost seats compared to the previous election, women’s overall representation rose from 163 seats (40.8%) in the 2014 election to 175 seats (43.8%). Women also made up 55% of registered voters and showed up to vote at higher rates than their male counterparts. Following the election, the ANC was criticised for only electing two women out of eight Premier positions they have won. In response, the ANC announced that the Executive Councils in Provinces with a male Premier will be composed of 60% women representatives. In their mandate, the ANC also made a commitment to prioritize violence against women, and South Africa’s vocal feminist activists will undoubtedly be looking for effective implementation of these promises and the demands they have made during their 2018 GBV protests.

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