Union, Segregation, apartheid and Democracy: From Union to non racial democracy

Dr. Abdullah Abdurahman, led APO for 35 years.
Source: Scanned from a book -
New History of South Africa Cape Town) p231

Regular elections have been a feature of South Africa’s political landscape since the establishment of Union of South Africa in 1910. With the adoption of the Union Constitution Act of 1910 the two dominant white political interests, the English colonial territories and recently defeated Afrikaner republics agreed to create a new white minority state in which blacks and white women were denied the right to vote.

During negotiation to establish a new nation, within the folds of the British Empire, there was an agreement that the right to vote be enjoyed by Coloureds and Africans in the Cape Province (currently Eastern, Western and Northern Cape Provinces), plus that of a small number of Indians who enjoyed the right to vote in a few Natal municipal districts will not be tampered with. It is significant that in the elections of 1910, held simultaneously with Provincial elections, Dr. Abdullah Abdurahman, leader of the African People’s Organisation (APO)  was elected to the Cape Provincial Council. 

In 1930,  after a spirited struggle the vote was extended to White women. And in 1936 the Coalition Government made up of Afrikanar Nationalist Party headed by General Hertzog and the South African Labour Party took away their right of the African voters in the Eastern Cape. In 1950 the Nationalist Party headed by DF Malan changed the constitution to remove the right of coloured people in the Western Cape to vote.

The New white minority state’s constitution and state was modeled on the Westminster system with a central government and a senate. There was a strict separation of powers between the Legislative and Judicial spheres of government and the creation of four provinces each with its own provincial legislature with limited powers.

The Cape Colony is considered “one of the great paradoxes of South African history for having spewed forth the forces of dispossession and subjugation, and yet remained a bastion of egalitarianism embodied in the nominally non-racial Cape Constitution of 1853.” (Lodge (ed),1986: p144.)

The white minority state recognized realized that they had to find a way of accommodating the demands of Black people for basic rights enjoyed by whites or the country will be plagued by continued unrest. Smuts in his famous address in May 1917 at the imperial institution in London outlined the rationale for segregation and the denial of the votes and rights.

“We have realized that political ideas which apply to our white civilisation largely do not apply to the administration of Native Affairs…. And so a practice has grown up in South Africa of creating parallel institutions – giving the native their own separate institutions on parallel lines with institutions for whites. It may be that on those parallel lines we may yet be able to solve a problem which may otherwise be insoluble…. Instead of mixing up Blacks and Whites in the old haphazard way, which instead of lifting up the Black degraded the Whites, we are now trying to lay down a policy of keeping them apart as much as possible in our institutions. In land ownership, settlement and forms of government we are trying to keep them apart, and in that way laying down in outline a general policy which it may take a hundred years to work out, but which in the end may be the solution of our Native problem ….”

The government developed a number of strategies to ensure that Black aspirations would be satisfied firstly by entrenching the power of the Chiefs in those areas designated “Native Reserves” as the representatives of the people. Secondly the state in certain urban locations established limited local government institutions to which people were elected. . The exclusion of Blacks from representative bodies throughout South Africa could not be absolute.

Representation for Blacks was provided for in bodies like the Native Representative Council (NRC) and the Coloured Representative Council. The latter was introduced in an attempt to water down Coloured people’s right to vote as provided for in the Union Constitution. At different times during the 20th century, successive governments tempered with Black political representation. In the case of Blacks outside the Cape Province, this led to the establishment of homelands and dissolution of the NRC.   

In this feature we have selected “turning- point” elections that became political expressions defining modern day South Africa for generations. The 1910 election gave expression to the majority of white South Africans’ desire for the forging of a racially divided society. The second in 1948 was an expression of a lack of confidence in the ability of segregationist policies to contain Black resistance to white rule. The third held in 1994, represented the triumph of the struggle for non racial democracy over systems based on racial oppression. Each of these will be examined in greater detail. Between these periods of major elections, there were other elections whose significance is not as defined as the three discussed below. They will be referred to whenever they become pertinent.

The 1910 election: The Union of SA

The first election that created the modern South African state, held in accordance with the provisions of the Union of South Africa Act of 1909, set the scene for a political system that lasted for over eighty years. In the dispensation that merged the two independent Afrikaner Republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, and two British colonies of Natal and the Cape Province, the constitution explicitly excluded Blacks from participating in mainstream political activity. It was only Blacks and Coloureds in the Cape Province that were allowed an indirect representation in the country’s representative bodies. 

Black opposition to this political dispensation began with the first election of 1910, led by the South African Native National Convention (SANNC) renamed the African National  Congress (A.N.C.) in 1923. Appeals by the SANNC to the British government were ignored and a new Union government was established.

In this compromise arrangement between rival Afrikaner interests still bitter about the outcome of the Anglo Boer War of the previous decade, and what was perceived as British “Imperial” interests, the election was won by the South African Party (SAP) led by Louis Botha. Botha became the first Prime Minister, an act considered be the pacification of the Afrikaner. The main opposition party, the Unionist Party, was considered to be promoting British “imperial” interests. The third party, the South African Labour Party represented mainly white workers associated with the labour movement. The outcome of the elections showed a desire for striking a compromise arrangement that excluded Blacks from participating in the political process.

Results of the 1910 elections
15 September 1910 General Louis Botha's South African Party won a majority in the 1910 general election of the Union South African, with Louis Botha (a Boer leader in the Anglo-Boer War) becoming the first prime minister of the Union of South Africa (1910-1919). Jan Smuts, also a Boer leader in the Anglo-Boer War, became Botha's Minister of Defence.
Party Seats

South African Party

Unionist Party


Labour Party





 Source: http://www.southafrica.to/history/history.html

1929 Elections: The last “white males only” election

The Suffragettes wanted the right for women to vote.
Source: Museum Africa, Johannesburg.

The outbreak of World War I led to tensions between the dominant interests, the Afrikaner’s search for security from Blacks and English Imperial interests united by the desire to see increased English influence in South Africa. This led to the emergence of the National Party, styling itself the custodians of Afrikaner interests. It was only ten years later, in the elections of 1923 that this party, in a pact with the Labour Party representing white workers, formed a government. The Pact Government did not survive the challenges thrown up by the Great Depression of 1929, giving way to a Coalition Government of the SAP and the National Party. This coalition also had a brief duration, being put to a test by the outbreak of World War II.

The results of the 1929 elections reflect the shift in voter preference, with an increasing number voting for the Afrikaner party, the National Party led by JMB Hetzog:

Results of the 1929 elections
14 June 1929 The National Party, led by General JMB Hertzog, won the most seats in the 1929 general election of the Union South African.


South African Party


National Party


Labour Party






Source: http://www.southafrica.to/history/history.html

This election has yet another significance barely referred to in most studies of the period. It was the last election in which white women were not allowed to vote. In 1930 white women were entered into the voters’ roll and allowed to vote in the following election, which was held in 1933. The Women's Enfranchisement Association of the Union (WEAU), was the main pressure group that lobbied for the extension of the franchise to white women. In some cases these groups demanded the extension of the franchise to all women, thereby linking white women’s concerns with those of women of other races.

It appears that parties that were most likely to garner support from white women were keen on the franchise being extended to them. It is possible that it was parties with a strong Afrikaner support base, the National Party in particular, that may have promoted this measure. For more on women’s campaigns in South Africa read "Women and elections in South Africa".

The Coalition Government was also characterized by a growing confidence in the Afrikaner parties. There was a new initiative to attack the Cape franchise and bring the province in line with the rest of South Africa. In 1936 Blacks in the Cape were removed from the common voters’ roll and provision was made for their participation in the Native Representative Council (NRC) under the Representation of Natives Act of 1936. Consequently, “the elections of 1937, 1942 and 1948 were the only elections ever held in South Africa before 1994 on a national level in which blacks indirectly took part”. (Lodge, T(ed)(1986) Resistance and Ideology in Settler Societies) p144. (own emphasis)

World War II brought to the fore sharp differences over allegiance to Britain leading to a fracture in white South African politics. The situation was worsened by the heightened militancy of Black people, especially the black labour movement, resulting from growing levels of urbanisation. These wartime developments combined to bring about a shift in white politics. The middle-of-the-road or compromise arrangement between English and Afrikaner interests gave way to right wing dominance of the political landscape. This was considered the most effective response to challenges thrown up by increasing levels of black militancy. The first post WWII election, the election of 1948, reflected this development.

1948 election: Towards Apartheid

The architects of Apartheid.
© Apartheid Museum Archive.

The election in 1948 was a contest between white political parties over the most effective strategies of containing Black resistance to white rule and keeping them away from the urban areas. The NP promised white voters that its government would restrict Blacks to the Homelands while systematically marginalizing those in the urban areas, denying them permanent residential rights in the cities. This also meant that Blacks could only exercise political rights in the Homelands.

The NP government introduced legislation that provided for the establishment of Homelands for Blacks. The Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 provided for the establishment of eight homelands where Blacks were ‘allowed political rights’. In 1959 the Promotion of Bantu Self Government Act was passed which provided for ultimate independence from South Africa of the eight designated homelands. And the first step towards the realization of this objective was the passing of the Transkei Constitution Act of 1963 which provided for elections being held in that homeland.

Following the elections in 1963, Kaizer Matanzima was elected Chief Minister and a “Bunga” or Parliament was established for the Homeland. The ill fated homeland, along with all the others that followed, was dissolved shortly before the democratic elections in 1994 and incorporated into the post Apartheid South African state.  

Results of 1948 election
Parties Votes % Seats
Herenigde Nasionale Party 401,834 37.70% 70
Afrikaner Party 41,885 3.93% 9
Herenigde Nasionale Party-Afrikaner Party Coalition 443,719 41.63% 79
 United Party 524,230 49.18% 65  
 South African Labour Party 27,360 2.57% 6  
Independents   70,662 6.63% 0

Total valid

Spoilt votes

Total votes








The outcome of the 1948 elections was interpreted by Verwoerd and other leading Afrikaner politicians as signaling an acceptance of the Apartheid policy by the majority of white people. But it was only after the NP was returned to power in 1953 that it introduced some of the most draconian measures aimed at containing Black resistance. And with every successive election thereafter, British “imperial” influence became less of a factor in South African politics. The adoption of Republican status in 1961 merely made formal what had already become a reality-that British influence had become irrelevant in South African politics.  

The last Apartheid election of major significance was held in 1983. The election was a referendum about a new constitution providing for the creation of two additional houses of parliament for Coloureds and Indians as well as introducing an Executive President in place of a Prime Minister. This was a radical departure from the Westminster system South Africa had inherited from Britain. The outcome of this election, which reflected the white electorate’s acceptance of the NP government’s constitutional reforms, marked the beginning of the end of apartheid and white hegemony. The next election in 1988 merely laid the foundation for meaningful negotiations and reform that led to the introduction of a democratic alternative for South Africa in 1994.

Elections in post Apartheid South Africa

1994: South Africa's first non racial, democratic elections

Nelson Mandela casting his vote during
the first SA democratic elections.
Source: ANC website

South Africa’s democratic system was endorsed by voters drawn from across the country’s racial divide in April 1994. There is little doubt that coming from a history of a racially divided society, people voted for their skin colour in 1994 over policies. Since then however, it appears that voting in South Africa has been transcending traditional racial preferences, with historically white political parties growing the number of black voters supporting them. Similarly, Black political formations have been increasing their support in other racial groups. It is Cape Town and the Western Cape where developments have been far from clear cut, with voting patterns inspiring the emergence of new compacts across the racial divide.

Nineteen political parties were registered and participated in the elections in 1994. In Apartheid South Africa there were only three main political parties. These were the NP, the Democratic Party and the Conservative Party. There was also a very weak tradition of Independent candidates at the tail end of apartheid, as opposed to early in the twentieth century.

The main parties in the election were products of political formations that were significant in the years leading to 1994. They include the ANC, Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the NP, the Democratic Party (DP), The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and AZAPO. Other smaller parties were mainly issue based, promoting the interests of specific groups in civil society. One of these was the Women’s Rights Peace Party. Others seem to have been concerned about the fate of specific communities in the new South Africa. The African Muslim Party seems to fall into this category.

Results of the 1994 elections
National Assembly results


% Votes

No votes


African National Congress


12 237 655


National Party


3 983 690


Inkatha Freedom Party


2 058 294


Freedom Front


424 555


Democratic Party


338 426


Pan Africanist Congress


243 478


African Christian Democratic Party


88 104


Africa Muslim Party


34 466


African Moderates Congress Party


27 690


Dikwankwetla Party of SA


19 451


Federal Party


17 663


Minority Front


13 433




10 575


Africa Democratic Movement


9 886


Women's Rights Peace Party


6 434


Ximoko Progressive Party


6 320


Keep it Straight and Simple


5 916


Workers' List Party


4 169


Luso-SA Party


3 293


Total 99.99 19 533 498 400

Source: INDEPENDENT ELECTORAL COMMISSION 1994 Report of the Independent Electoral Commission: The South African Elections of April 1994; for a detailed electronic version of the results see INDEPENDENT ELECTORAL COMMISSION UNDATED "National Election '94" IN Elections '94", [www] http://www.elections.org.za/Elections94.asp [opens new window] (accessed 26 Feb 2010).

Elections: Post 1994 South Africa

Of the three general elections following the historic event of 1994, it was the 2009 election that promised a major shift in voting patterns and voter preferences. Much was expected after the Polokwane conference a year earlier. Yet, that election did not significantly alter the balance of power. The ANC still emerged with an overwhelming majority, except for the Western Cape, where the Democratic Alliance (DA) still has the majority of the votes. This has made the upcoming local government election in the province a more fierce duel between the ANC and the DA.

Local government elections, 1995 to 2011

Local government elections, won by the ANC in 1995, have galvanized communities in ways that was never before seen in South Africa. Successive attempts by the Apartheid government to involve Black communities in its “puppet” local government structures were met with fierce resistance marked by low voter turn outs as an expression of dissent. Elections held in Black Townships following the enactment of the Black Local Authorities Act of 1984 and the Community Councils the Act merely helped intensify the communities’ resistance to apartheid. In fact, it is the responses of communities to these structures that set in motion a process culminating in the collapse of the NP government in 1994.


  • Lodge, T.(ed),(1986) Resistance and Ideology in Settler Societies p144.
  • Lodge, T. (1983)  Black Politics in South Africa since 1945 (Johannesburg)  pp 95-108
  • Giliomee, H and Mbenga, B. (2007) New History of South Africa Cape Town) p318
  • Evans, I. T. (1957) Bureaucracy and race administration South Africa (London) pp145-55
  • SAHO, The National Party, [online] Available at www.sahistory.org.za [Accessed13 April 2011]