As South Africa’s pivotal election looms, its citizens will play a key role in ensuring its credibility

Speculation that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) could lose its majority and usher in a new form of politics has garnered international attention. Through this complex transition, the country’s electoral system and civil society observers can and should be trusted.

Expert comment Published 22 May 2024 3 minute READ

South Africa’s 29 May election has been tipped as the most important since the first democratic poll in 1994 and an important inflection point. Most polls have indicated that the ruling ANC will lose its majority but retain a leading role in national government and most of the provinces. 

The results could be close. In particular, there could be marginal differences between smaller parties and independent candidates who are able to run for the first time in this election. Small margins could be the difference between getting access to political resources – and economic resources – or not. As with elections across the world, losers will look to blame the process. 

On 15 May, Chief Electoral Officer Sy Mamobolo announced that over 5,000 election observers had been registered. 145 out of the 160 registered organizations are domestic. For a young democracy with suspicion of outsiders ingrained in its psyche, it is important that South Africans will safeguard their own electoral process. Whatever the outcome, the international community should listen to their assessments and trust their findings. 

An uncertain outcome is leading to increased scrutiny 

While the ANC will likely be the largest party and retain its position in government, it is expected to need a coalition partner. 

Speculation by analysts on possible coalitions is divided into those who see a likely centrist coalition with the Democratic Alliance (DA) or the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), and those who foresee an alliance with the self-proclaimed nationalist Marxist-Leninist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and populist wildcard Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) – backed by former President Zuma and already casting doubts over the election results. 

The complexity of the political outcome will be compounded by the expectation that coalitions will be needed both at a national and provincial level, but with different configurations. 

These diverging coalition prospects portray either a positive picture of policy continuity and some economic stability – maintaining a lauded fiscal cap and conservative monetary policy – or potential calls for land expropriation and resource nationalization that will certainly spook markets and investors. 

Across Southern Africa, national liberation movements have proved reluctant to release the reins of power and have abused positions of incumbency to distort electoral outcomes. But this is unlikely to happen in the case of the ANC due to the institutional configuration of South Africa, the electoral process, and the role of parties, faith groups and civil society in election observation. In South Africa, it is extremely hard to rig an election.

Unique features of South Africa’s electoral process

South Africa’s electoral system have a number of key features that help ensure its integrity. First, it has a ‘live vote count’ where votes are counted by officials, checked by party agents, and entered into a centralized system in real time. Issues and grievances are dealt with by robust and active party liaison committees. Grievances can also be elevated to the electoral courts, which are trusted.

In South Africa, it is extremely hard to rig an election.

Second, political parties play a vital role in holding the electoral system to account as a means of checks and balances. Parties have access to the published electoral register, which they scrutinize closely. Furthermore, party agents are an essential part of the accountability of the process on the day, monitoring the counts at all locations and recording the results in parallel.

Finally, the entire system is underpinned by civil society’s participation in election observation. Among the domestic groups that will be observing the upcoming election are Defend our Democracy, Future Elect, the Ground Work Collective, and the National Foundation Dialogues Initiative. Each of these groups have high-profile leaders and are part of wider civil society collectives, making them well placed to hold the system and political players to account. Furthermore, the South African Council of Churches have traditionally played an important and trusted observation role, raising anomalies and challenging results when needed. 


Of course, there are also some weaknesses in the system. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) came under scrutiny earlier this year over leaked party lists; poor road infrastructure hampers ballot box delivery; and electoral agents are often teachers that are unionized and therefore politically aligned to the ruling party through the tripartite alliance. However, there is little evidence of these factors influencing past election results. And despite opposition criticism of the role of teachers as electoral agents, teachers are often the most trusted and respected members of rural communities and thus suited to presiding over the vote. 

The May election looks set to be the most important since the end of apartheid, which is likely to raise concerns over the electoral process – and local outcomes in particular.

There have also been past cases of electoral officers being convicted of ballot stuffing and allegations of voters crossing ward boundaries to vote in local elections. But these instances of manipulation have never come close to bringing the result into question. 

The May election looks set to be the most important since the end of apartheid, which is likely to raise concerns over the electoral process – and local outcomes in particular. But the credibility of the results will be guaranteed by two complementary factors. First, the integrity of the electoral system, derived from its genuine political independence, inbuilt safeguards, and high level of transparency. Second, the long tradition of participation from political parties, civil society, and faith groups in election observation, which is rooted in the struggle and transition to democracy 30 years ago.