Concept Note: Women’s political participation

Women’s Political Participation and the Constitutional Court ruling on the Electoral System – Cyber Dialogues
Date: 11 August 2020
Who: Citizens, women, youth, media, electoral system experts, NGOs, women parliamentarians, women councillors, academics
Where: Cyber dialogue (Gender Links Zoom meeting)
To join the dialogue please sign up or login to the Southern Africa Gender Community (SGC). After logging in can click on the Cyber Dialogues icon. Click the “Join Meeting” button on the meeting details presented. Please note that only members of the SGC can join the Cyber Dialogue.
Summary of Constitutional Court ruling
Time: 11:00 – 13:00


This concept note concerns the first in a series of dialogues on the implications of the Constitutional Court ruling on the Electoral Act on Women’s Political Participation (WPP). On 11 June 2020 the Constitutional Court found that the Electoral Act, based on the Proportional Representation (PR) system is unconstitutional because it does not allow individuals to be elected as independent candidates. This means that South Africa’s current legislation which provides for the PR electoral system will need to change. Globally and in South Africa, the PR system has been a key factor in increasing women’s representation in parliament from 2.7% prior to the first democratic elections to 46% at the present time. Two bodies established by Chapter Nine of the Constitution in support of democracy are partnering with key Women’s Rights Organisations (WROs) during Women’s Month, August 2020, to begin a consultation on the implications of the ruling for WPP. The final output will be a submission to parliament. Let’s all ensure that gender equality is at the heart of any new solutions!


  • To bring together relevant stakeholders – IEC, experts, CSOs – to interrogate women’s political representation and participation and how electoral systems can help or hinder women from entering political spaces
  • To move beyond the numbers to what it means to participate fully and effectively.
  • To strategise on the best ways of organising to ensure that the new electoral legislation complies with the Constitution and the Constitutional Court judgement and has the best outcomes for women.


The New Nation Movement brought the case concerning South Africa’s electoral system to the Constitutional Court. This civil society group argued that the Electoral Act limits the constitutional right to stand for public office and, if elected, to hold office (S19(3)(b)). Some applicants also submitted that the Act infringes their right to freedom of association protected by section 18 of the Constitution. Princess Chantal Revell who is of Khoi and San royal decent, was the second applicant in the case, because she hopes to be able to stand for election so that she can prioritise First Nation People’s issues, which she argues are side- lined by political parties.

Electoral systems have a key bearing on the extent of women’s political participation and can either help or hinder women’s entry into political decision making.

In South Africa, national elections are conducted on a simple PR basis, while local elections are conducted on a mixed system using elements of both the PR and First Past the Post (FPTP) systems. This has resulted in 46% women in parliament and 41% women in local government. South Africa ranks highest in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on women’s representation in parliament and is second at the local government level.

There is overwhelming evidence internationally to suggest that women stand a better chance of getting elected under the Proportional Representation PR (and especially the closed list PR system) as opposed to the constituency electoral system. The reason for this is that in the latter case, candidates focus on the party and its policies, rather than on a particular individual. This works in favour of women – at least in getting their foot in the door- because of the in-built prejudices against women in politics. The PR system is seen as strong on inclusion, but weak on accountability.

Sometimes referred to as “winner takes all”, the FPTP system is seen as strong on accountability, but weak on inclusion, including inclusion of women. The system has a heavy emphasis on individual candidates. Finance, visibility and networks play a key role in success and these are often heavily weighted against women.

A mixed system maximises on the benefits of the two systems, and combines both PR and FPTP. Where this happens (as is the case in local government in South Africa) there is typically a higher proportion of women in the PR seats than in the FPTP. Quotas are often more usually used in conjunction with the PR than FPTP system. South Africa does not have legislated or Constitutional quotas for women’s representation, as is the case in many countries in the region. However, the voluntary fifty percent quota for women adopted by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has played a decisive role in increasing women’s representation at local, provincial and national level.

The court has given parliament 24 months to make the necessary changes to legislation, ie before the next national elections in 2024. What this means is that the electoral system could change to either a FPTP system (although this is less likely as, per the constitution, part of the electoral system has to be proportional representation) or a mixed system – the system used at the local government level.

In her book Democracy – More than just elections, former IEC Chairperson, Dr Brigalia Bam says: “I think that South Africa should look at a mixed system, where some people are accountable to the voters. Some people then remain accountable to the party. Because with the system that we have is that if you get a position in parliament, local government you are accountable to your party you are not accountable to the people you are serving.”

Dr. Bam concludes her book by reminding us of the task ahead: “Our democracy is at a crossroads and the world is restless as it is stirred by protests against political, social and economic injustices. Whilst we may have made great strides in our transition to democracy, especially in the area of putting in place institutions of democracy, we however still have the scourge of being one of the most unequal societies in the world, with intergenerational poverty, unemployment that is particularly acute among the youth, an education crisis, corruption and violent crimes against women.”

Next steps

The court ruling is likely to be followed by a public participation process. Women need to start strategizing now on how to ensure that gender equality, a cornerstone of our Constitution, is at the heart of any new solutions. The debate needs to go beyond just women’s representation in political decision-making to gender responsive governance that ensures substantive equality is achieved in all areas. After building a broad consensus on these issues, the partners plan to engage political parties and law makers ahead of the formal hearings.

Partners in the initiative

The Electoral Commission (IEC) South Africa’s election management body, an independent organisation established under chapter nine of the Constitution. It conducts elections to the National Assembly, provincial legislatures and municipal councils

The South African Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) is the body established by Chapter Nine of the Constitution to promote, protect and evaluate the attainment of Gender Equality in South Africa

South African Women in Dialogue (SAWID)  is an inclusive, non-partisan and not for profit women’s organisation established in 2003 that aims to represent the voices of South African women on all platforms where decisions are made that impact on their lives. SAWID subscribes to the principle of the broadest possible definition of inclusivity in terms of race, language, ethnicity, age, class, geographic origin, religious or political allegiance and sexual preference.

Gender Links (GL) – is a Southern African NGO based in South Africa that has conducted extensive research on gender and governance and promotes the Fifty Fifty Campaign

Women Voice and Leadership (WVL) South Africa – is a fund established by Global Affairs Canada, managed in South Africa by GL, as part of its Feminist International Assistance Policy.

Draft programme for the first dialogue

Agenda item Who Time allocation
Welcome, introductions and objectives Facilitator 5 mins
Types of Electoral Systems Nomsa Masuku, IEC Commissioner 10 mins
Why the PR System for SA Pantsy Tlakula 5 mins
Constitutional Court Case Princess Chantal Revell (TBC) 5 mins
Constitutional Court Ruling and its implications Dr Sithembiso Nyoni 5 mins
Gender, Democracy and Women’s Month CGE 5 mins
Gender and Electoral systems – Lessons from South Africa and the SADC region GL 5 mins
How has the mixed system worked at the local government level? What are the benefits and weaknesses on the system? Woman PR councillor and Ward councillor 10 mins
Beyond numbers SAWID 10 mins
Young Women Speak Out 10 mins
Discussion All open discussion 35 mins
Conclusion and next steps Facilitator 10 mins

More information

South Africa Gender and Elections audits

Abstract to Dr Brigalia Ban’s book Democracy – More than just elections

We Do Democracy


Marthe Muller [SAWID]:

Nomthandazo Mankazana Mokoa- Grants Coordinator:

Susan Tolmay – Governance and Justice Manager: