Election arithmetic

It’s almost election time, and with 48 parties standing nationally (and a further 32 standing only at provincial level), there are lot of hopeful party leaders out there.

It’s safe to say the majority of them are going to be very disappointed when the results are announced. Let’s look at some election arithmetic:

First, nationally:

Year Parties contesting Parties that won seats Parties that didn’t win seats
1994 19 7 12
1999 16 13 3
2004 21 12 9
2009 27 13 14
2014 29 13 16
2019 48 (14?) (34?)

Even if the vote is split more than ever before, and, optimistically for the small parties, a record 14 parties are returned to parliament in 2019, that still leaves 34 parties that will fail to win a seat. 34 parties, more than have even contested before, that have spent R200 000 just to register, and who knows how much more to campaign (judging by the activities of some of the parties, that figure will be close to zero) for the promise of making a difference, or at least a cushy job in parliament, and will be sadly heading back to reality the day after.

What exactly did it take to win at least one seat in previous elections? The following table shows the smallest party (all earning one seat, except for the ACDP in 1994), and the number of votes they won to earn this.

Year Votes Smallest Party
1994 88,104 ACDP (2 seats)
1999 27,257 Azapo
2004 39,116 Azapo
2009 35,867 APC
2014 30,676 APC

Election queue 2004
Even if everyone in this queue votes for the same party, it’ll take almost 1000 of these queues for that party to earn a seat

What about provincially? In the Western Cape province:

Year Parties contesting Parties that won seats Parties that didn’t win seats
1994 14 5 9
1999 15 5 10
2004 20 6 14
2009 22 5 17
2014 26 4 22
2019 34 (5) (29?)

Do parties have a better chance of getting elected in the smaller pond of a province?

Here’s the Western Cape equivalent of the earlier table.

Year Votes Smallest Party
1994 25,731 ACDP
1999 38,071 UDM
2004 27,489 UDM
2009 28,995 ACDP
2014 21,696 ACDP

Looking at just the Western Cape, the answer’s a resounding no, parties don’t have an easier time provincially. You can even say it’s harder, as parties have to win a much higher percentage of the available votes to win a seat. Every party that managed to win seats also won seats nationally, leaving no room for the smaller, provincial only parties, while the reverse was very much not true. The majority of parties that won sets nationally failed to win a seat in the Western Cape. The most parties that have ever been represented was 6, and currently there are only four represented. Bad news for the 10 hopeful parties that have registered for the Western Cape only.

Again, even if we see an increase to 5 parties winning representation, a record 29 parties, more than have ever even contested before, will be sorely disappointed.

Notice that the number of votes won by the smallest parties is not much less than nationally. And in 1999, it was a lot more.

New parties have a hard time breaking into parliament without something major happening. A major split from an existing party, or a high-profile personality entering politics. Looking through the years, there are very few exceptions


1994, as the first non-racial election, can’t be compared to a previous election, but of the seven parties winning representation, only one, the African Christian Democratic Party, didn’t have a substantial political presence before.


In 1999, the number of parties elected nationally lept from seven to thirteen. All seven represented parties were returned to parliament, while the six new parties were:

  • The United Democratic Movement, made up of prominent former ANC and NP politicians.
  • Azapo, a prominent liberation movement which had boycotted the 1994 elections.
  • The Minority Front (MF), a party led by prominent politician Amichand Rajbansi, ex-leader the of the National People’s Party, the dominant party in the House of Delegates election (available to South Africans classified Indian/Asian only) during apartheid.
  • The United Christian Democratic Party (UCDP), led by Lucas Mangope, president of the Bophuthatswana bantustan during apartheid, who had also boycotted the first election (putting it mildly).
  • Federal Alliance, led by South African rugby supremo Louis Luyt
  • Afrikaner Eenheidsbeweging (AEB). Probably the lowest profile party to win a seat, leader Cassie Aucamp was still a relatively prominent Afrikaner nationalist and I believe church leader.


In 2004, the number of represented parties was reduced to 12. One new party, the Independent Democrats, was led by the well-known PAC politician Patricia de Lille, and who had increased her national profile with her work in exposing the arms deal.

Two parties were not returned to parliament, both newcomers in 1999.

  • Federal Alliance – the party ran jointly with the Democratic Alliance, and later merged with the Freedom Front Plus
  • AEB


2009 saw an increase to 13 again. The New National Party folded, while two new parties were elected:

  • COPE were formed from a major split in the ANC after the ousting of President Mbeki
  • The African People’s Convention were formed from a split in the PAC, with the deputy president leaving to form his own party


2014 saw the number of return parties remain static, but some churn amongst the makeup. New additions were:

  • National Freedom Party, formed from a split in the Inkatha Freedom Part, and led by the former IFP chairperson.
  • Economic Freedom Fighters, formed after prominent ex-ANC youth league leader and President Jacob Zuma supporter Julius Malema was expelled from the ANC.
  • Agang, led by high-profile Mamphela Ramphele, a prominent anti-apartheid activist, managing director at the World Bank and former partner of murdered activist Steve Biko. Her dalliance with the Democratic Alliance before the election also increased her visibility.

Out went:

  • UCDP – Mangope was expelled in 2012
  • MF – Rajbansi died in 2011
  • Azapo – probably a victim of the EFF’s success.

The point is, it’s extremely difficult to get elected. Once you’re in, with all the resources and free media coverage, it’s a little harder to leave again, but the death or removal of a prominent leader puts the personality parties in particular at risk.


So, what does this mean for 2019? Putting on my soothsayer hat, the following parties are in danger:

  • Agang is at risk after Mamphela Ramphele left shortly after the 2014 elections. Although new leader Andries Tlouamma has been making the most of his media coverage, and perhaps his twerking will be enough to keep the party in parliament.
  • PAC – again experiencing bitter infighting, as they have before every recent election, will this be one election too far for them?
  • AIC – some thought their surprising result in the 2014 election was due to being placed right next to the ANC on the election ballot. With similar colours and a similar logo, perhaps people were confused while voting? But their results have been steady since, and with their new national profile, they may be on track to at least retain a seat.
  • APC – the party seems to be quite active on the ground. but their aim of a million votes (up from thirty thousand in 2014) is pie-in-the-sky stuff. They rather need to look behind them to hold on to their seat, with Azapo running again, the EFF gaining prominence, and other new entrants such as Black First Land First, the Land Party, all playing in the same zone.

So, who are the possible 2019 newcomers to parliament?

  • Good, the party formed by Patricia de Lille on her expulsion from the Democratic Alliance, are very likely to earn a seat, and will be hoping to do as well as the Independent Democrats in 2004 and 2009.
  • The Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party have prominent trade union backers, and if they can tap into their organisational capacity, they should win representation.
  • The ATM is backed by the South African Council of Messianic Churches in Christ, who have a hefty following. If they can tap into this, they also have a good chance of representation.

Beyond that, I struggle to see any of the newcomers gaining a seat. There’s still some time left, and things could change, but most seem to be relying on wishful thinking that the support of a few people close to them, or in their community, will get them over the line.

And most are going to be horribly disappointed.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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