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  • Choosing and Electoral SystemSouth Africa Seeks New Ground Rules
  • Timothy D. Sisk (bio)

While the tragic political violence that is threatening South Africa's transition away from apartheid raises doubts about the future of democracy in that country, nearly all observers agree that there will soon be elections under universal suffrage. With both major contenders for power—the ruling National Party (NP) and the African National Congress (ANC)—asserting that another national election under the current racially segregated franchise should not take place, South Africans must choose a new electoral system. This is one of many critical institutional choices that will soon have to be made by an elected constituent assembly. (Negotiations are progressing slowly among the NP, the ANC, and other political groupings over the ground rules that such a constituent assembly should follow in adopting key constitutional provisions.)

Designing an electoral system is a crucial—if often overlooked—challenge facing democracy in South Africa. Theory and history alike prove that different ways of tabulating votes produce different winners; no single electoral system can be argued to be the "fairest" of them all. Electoral systems can play an important role in "engineering" the results of democratic voting, and along with other institutional choices can have a profound impact on the nature of political parties and the general character of democracy.

Four things shape this impact: the size, geographical distribution, ethnic (or racial) composition, and socioeconomic profile of the population. Recent demographic surveys, which differ from previously available information and which include the now nominally independent [End Page 79] homelands, suggest that there will be about 21 million eligible voters—69 percent of whom will be "African," 19 percent "White," 10 percent "Coloured," and 3 percent "Asian," using the still prevalent apartheid racial classifications.

The racial distribution of the population is important given the enduring legacy of apartheid, but so is the country's ethnic composition. Many experts have argued that ethnicity (not race) will be the primary cleavage once the shroud of apartheid is lifted, and that political parties will likely reflect ethnic divisions. As Table 1 indicates, ethnicity (as indicated by the language that people speak at home) is a much more complicated cleavage than race. The controversy over ethnicity is especially heated, with some viewing an emphasis on ethnic divisions as a throwback to apartheid and a way of thwarting majority rule. Yet it is class conflict—the struggle between South Africa's few haves and many have-nots—that may cause the deepest cleavage of all. According to many cross-national comparisons, South Africa ranks among the most unequal societies in the world; it is also unusual in the degree to which the distribution of income correlates with race.

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Table 1mdash.

Home Language Use in South Africa, 1990 Estimates1

This information about the structure of South Africa's multiracial, predominantly rural, ethnically diverse, and economically unequal electorate underlies both the scholarly debate and the calculations that [End Page 80] political parties must make concerning their electoral prospects under various kinds of voting rules.

The Scholarly Debate

Most scholarly writing on electoral-system choice in South Africa first diagnoses the causes and nature of conflict there and then prescribes electoral methods and rules designed to help ameliorate it and foster a nascent democracy. Expert debate focuses on how various electoral systems can aid in the achievement of such desiderata as representativeness, accountability, and moderation on the part of leaders, as well as on how the principle of "one person, one vote of equal value"—an imperative in the wake of apartheid's limitation of voting rights by race—can be appropriately manifested given the conditions in South Africa's deeply divided society.

The issue is immensely complex. The three key components of electoral systems—ballot structure, district magnitude (number of representatives per district), and the manner of allocating seats—can be combined in hundreds of different ways. In broad terms, however, the options are three: single-member-district plurality or majority systems, proportional representation (PR), and forms of subsequent-preference voting that include subtypes of the first two categories.

Most observers agree that the effects which the present...


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