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Apartheid was Helped by a Twisted Election System

From 538’s Dan Berman

Over the last few weeks there has been an understandable focus on downsides to a plurality electoral system, such as whether they are biased. In the context of the United Kingdom, most of the focus has been on how the system has underrepresented the Liberal Democrats and benefited Labour. Central in these discussions was that the system might produce an “incorrect result”, namely one in which the largest party in seats was not the one that had received the most votes, and several political figures went so far as to warn of potential “social unrest” if such an outcome occurred.

The loser of the popular vote winning an election is far from unheard of in democracies, whether in the United States Presidential election in 2000, or the UK’s own general election in 1974. Even AV, or preferential voting did not prevent it from occurring in Australia in 1998. But each of these elections was close, and in subsequent years, the losing party eventually returned to power. As such, any distortion was an offense to fairness, but not a threat to the system.

There have, however, been cases where such biases have been more pernicious. Where the bias of the electoral system was so systematic that it eventually undermined the(albeit) limited legitimacy of the system in regards to its own voters, and eventually led dissenters to opt out of the political system entirely. A particularly prominent case is that of Apartheid South Africa, where a system of Apartheid was introduced despite the repeatedly demonstrated opposition of a majority of the white electorate.

While its racially exclusionary practices, which limited the franchise to white voters(as well as a limited number of mixed race ones between 1936 and 1958) the defenders of South Africa took great pride in arguing that the nation possessed a system that was highly democratic and representative of its voters, the “freest in Africa”. And on paper it was, with a constitution remarkably similar to Australia or Canada. Nevertheless, the election results that brought in Apartheid indicated that the system did an extremely poor job of representing the opinion even of its limited constituency. This fact becomes apparent by a simple examination of the results of the most important election to take place in South Africa prior to 1994, namely the 1948 elections that saw the National Party defeat the ruling United Party on a platform of imposing “Apartheid”.

By 1948, South African politics had been for four decades dominated by veterans of the Anglo-Boer wars, with three defeated Boer generals serving as Prime Minister, namely Louis Botha, Jan Smuts, and JBM Hertzog. Botha and Smuts formed the South Africa party which was an alliance between moderate Afrikaners and English voters. Opposed to it was the National party headed by Hertzog which appealed more to poorer Afrikaners and some poorer English voters.

During the depression, the two parties formed a coalition, which survived until the outbreak of war in 1939, which South Africa entered by a cabinet vote decided by a margin of one. The hard Afrikaner core of the National Party broke off from the ruling “United Party”. Highly sectarian (it did not field a single English candidate in 1948) it was considered to have little chance of winning in 1948 against the government which had just won the war.

The United Party however, like other Western governing parties that had ruled during the second world war, had many things going against it, including a serious recession, and concerns that it was out of ideas for the country’s future.

Compared to this, the National Party offered the promise of ending English dominance of the civil service and the economy as well ending the competition that African laborers moving to the urban areas posed to poor Afrikaner workers. When the votes were counted the United Party had won a large popular vote victory, 547,437 (50.9%) for the United Party to 443,278 (41.2%) for the National Party. But when the seats were declared, the National party and its allies had won 79, compared to 71 for the United Party and its allies.

The National Party had taken advantages of one of the quirks of the South African system. The first was that seats were allowed to deviate from the population quota by a margin of 15% in either direction in order to accommodate local boundaries and to limit their geographical size. While an average of around 7200 votes were cast per constituency, the National Party only won 2 seats where more than 7200 votes were cast. The United Party by contrast won more than half its seats in districts where over 8000 votes were cast.

Secondly, the National Party had the advantage of being an ethnic party in a country in which the ethnic balance favored them. Afrikaners, to whom they focused their appeal, made up 57% of the population, and were furthermore, better distributed for electoral purposes, making up the majority in 98 out of 150 seats. The redistricting that followed the Nationalist victory in 1948 only increased this discrepancy by adding six seats for Namibia, which was annexed in violation of UN resolutions calling for its independence.

Therefore, the results in the next two elections were even more disproportionate. In 1953, the opposition had united into the United Front, and had high hopes of victory, and with the unified support the South African business community and economic elite, they outspent the National party by nearly 4-1. Nevertheless, when the votes were counted the pattern of 1948 was repeated, only to an even greater extent than in 1948. In Cape Town the United Front won 73%; in Cape Elizabeth 65%. But in the rest of Cape Province, the National Party won 57% of the vote, and 29 out of 33 seats. The pattern was repeated nationwide. By 1958, the Opposition had all but given up serious hope of winning despite the fact that the results indicated that they still held the support of a majority of the electorate.

Following 1958, turnout began to drop rapidly as English voters and moderate Afrikaners increasingly made their peace with a National Party that looked unbeatable, while Liberals looked to emigration in preference to a futile political fight. Ironically therefore, the National Party’s dominance of the electoral system likely did as much to undermine Apartheid as sanctions.

The greatest threat to the system was always naked demographics, and by giving no option to young whites for political change, it drove many of South Africa’s best and brightest towards emigration. By the 1970s it was not just English speakers who were leaving the country, but also young Afrikaners who wanted an opportunity to escape an Afrikaans-only educational system that the National party seemed determined to force them into.

By the end of the 1970s, the white population was actually falling by nearly 20,000 a year, a pace that would more than double by the beginnings of the 1980s. While the electoral system may have made it increasingly difficult for South Africans to oust the National government with their votes, it in many cases led them to vote against its system of Apartheid with their feet.

This article was authored by research assistant Dan Berman. Please send comments or suggestions to