A guide to South African political parties


South Africa has a vibrant multiparty political system, with 13 parties represented in the National Assembly of Parliament.

A sitting of elected representatives from South Africa’s political parties, as elected by the people, at Parliament in Cape Town. (Image: South African Government Communication and Information System)

The African National Congress (ANC) is the majority party, with 249 of the 400 National Assembly seats. The party controls eight of the country’s nine provinces, with the exception of the Western Cape, where the Democratic Alliance has been in power since 2009 elections. In 2014, the DA secured 59.38% of the provincial vote.

The ANC controls seven of the eight metropolitan municipalities. Nonetheless, South Africa’s opposition parties remain robust and vocal.

South Africa’s Parliament is made up of two houses: the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces. The National Assembly is the more influential, passing legislation and overseeing executive performance. Its members are elected for a term of five years.

All South African citizens over the age of 18 eligible to vote, if they register to do so. So far, South Africa has had fully inclusive democratic elections every five years since 1994. Before the end of apartheid, only white South Africans were allowed to vote for the national government.

  • For a full list of results from South Africa’s 2014 elections, visit the Independent Electoral Commission at www.elections.org.za
(Image: Wikipedia)


Of the 29 parties that contested the 2014 elections, only 13 received sufficient votes to gain representation in Parliament.

The African National Congress (ANC)

(Image: African National Congress)

The African National Congress (ANC) is the governing party of South Africa, supported by its historial tripartite alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Founded in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress, it aimed to bring Africans together to defend their rights and fight for freedom. In 1923 its name was changed to the African National Congress.

Following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the party was banned by the Nationalist government. From 1961 organised acts of sabotage began, marking the emergence of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. The ANC was to be an underground and exiled organisation for the next 30 years.

In February 1990, the government unbanned the ANC and released Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners. The ANC was again able to openly recruit members and establish regional structures.

In the historic 1994 elections the ANC won 62% of the vote. Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president. In the 1999 elections the party increased its majority to a point short of two-thirds of the total vote. A two- thirds majority theoretically allows a party to change the country’s Constitution. Thabo Mbeki succeeded Mandela as president of the country.

ANC key objective is the creation of a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society. The Freedom Charter remains the party’s basic policy document. Adopted in June 1955 by the ANC and its allies, the charter lists principles on which a democratic South Africa should be built.

In the 2004 elections the party, which declared itself to be a social democratic party, retained its two-thirds majority (69.7%). After Mbeki resigned in 2008, a group of former ministers – led by Mosiuoa Lekota – split away and formed the Congress of the People.

In the 2009 elections, the ANC’s majority fell to 64.9%, and Jacob Zuma became the country’s president. In the 2014 elections, the ANC’s margin once again dropped to 62.15%. As of 2017, Zuma maintains a controversial stronghold on the party and the country as the head of the ANC and the country’s president, as it heads into a party elective conference at the end of 2017 and national elections in 2019.

The ANC is, with its tripartite alliance partners, committed to the values of the National Democratic Revolution. This, the ANC says, “strives to achieve the liberation of Africans in particular and black people in general from political and economic bondage. It means uplifting the quality of life of all South Africans, especially the poor.”

Democratic Alliance (DA)

(Image: Democratic Alliance)

South Africa’s official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, formerly known as the Democratic Party (DP), espouses liberal democracy and free market principles.

The party’s forerunner was the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), whose veteran politician Helen Suzman was its only representative in the white Parliament for many years. Suzman upheld liberal policies in the apartheid-era legislature and spoke out against apartheid laws.

In the 1980s the party increased its Parliamentary seats to seven. Among the new MPs was Tony Leon, who became DP leader in 1996, introducing a more aggressive approach to opposition politics. In 1999, the party became South Africa’s official opposition party – a position it has held since then.

In 2000 the DP joined forces with the New National Party and the Federal Alliance to form the Democratic Alliance (DA). But the NNP withdrew from the pact in late 2001, and was disbanded in 2004. More recently, the party integrated the smaller Independent Democrats.

Leon resigned as party head in 2007, to be replaced by Helen Zille, who is also the premier of the Western Cape.

Its leader in parliament is the outspoken and combative Mmusi Maimane, the first black leader of the party, who leads a parliamentary caucus of 109 members (89 in the National Assembly and 20 in the National Council of Provinces).

The DA increased its share of the vote from 1.7% in 1994 to about 10% in 1999 (as the former DP), 12.4% in 2004, 16.6% in 2009, and to 22.23% in 2014. The governing party in the Western Cape, its improved performance in the 2014 elections mean it is also the official opposition in seven of South Africa’s eight other provinces. (The EFF is the official opposition in Limpopo.)

While often seen as a traditional white liberal party, the DA has been slowly gaining more support from a rising black middle class and South Africans disillusioned by corruption and the failure of basic service delivery by the governing party.

The DA vision for South Africa is of “an open opportunity society in which every person is free, secure and equal, where everyone has the opportunity to improve the quality of his life and pursue her dreams, and in which every language and culture has equal respect and recognition”.

Economic Freedom Fighters

(Image: Economic Freedom Fighters)

Contesting its first election in 2014, Economic Freedom Fighters is the third most popular party in South Africa, garnering 6.35% of the vote. Formed just eight months before the election, the party received more than 1-million votes in the national ballot, earning 25 seats in Parliament.

The EFF is also the official opposition in North West and Limpopo provinces. The party, with its young, outspoken and politically savvy leaders, enjoys growing support among the youth.

The EFF was formed by former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema after he was expelled by the ANC in 2013. The charismatic yet controversial Malema is the self-declared leader of the party, and carries the title ‘commander in chief’.

The EFF describes itself as “a radical and militant economic emancipation movement” that is “pursuing the struggle for economic emancipation”.

Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP)

(Image: Inkatha Freedom Party)

The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, draws its support largely from Zulu-speaking South Africans, with the majority of its votes coming from voters in the rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal. In 1994, the IFP held 41 seats in the province but this dropped to a mere nine in 2014. Support for the party from migrant workers’ in the metropolitan areas of Gauteng has shifted to the EFF.

Buthelezi has led the IFP since he founded it as the Inkatha National Cultural Liberation Movement in 1975. His political career dates back to the 1940s, when he joined the ANC Youth League while studying at Fort Hare University. In 1953 he took up a position as chief of the Buthelezi clan, and in 1970 was appointed head of the KwaZulu Territorial Authority in terms of the apartheid-era Bantu Administration Act. He became the homeland’s chief minister in 1976.

Inkatha was transformed into a political party in July 1990, championing federalism as the best political option for South Africa.

The IFP’s focus is on social justice and its manifesto seeks the resolution to a number of South African issues – the AIDS crisis, unemployment, crime, poverty and corruption – and to prevent the consolidation of a one-party state.

The IFP also believes in integrating traditional leadership into the system of governance by recognising traditional communities as models of societal organisation. Buthelezi heads KwaZulu-Natal’s House of Traditional Leaders, which advises the government on issues relating to traditional leaders.

National Freedom Party (NFP)

(Image: National Freedom Party)

The National Freedom Party was established in 2011 by Zanele ka Magwaza-Msibi, a former chair of the Inkatha Freedom Party. Contesting elections for the first time in 2014, the NFP secured six seats in the National Assembly with 1.57% of the vote. It holds six seats in the KwaZulu-Natal legislature.

Magwaza-Msibi was appointed as South Africa’s deputy minister of science and technology in Zuma’s cabinet shake-up after the 2014 elections.

The NFP says it aims to emphasise service delivery to realise its vision of substantive economic emancipation. One of its primary aims is to govern KwaZulu-Natal and increase representation in all other provincial legislatures.

United Democratic Movement (UDM)

(Image: United Democratic Movement)

The United Democratic Movement (UDM) was formed in 1997 by Bantu Holomisa, who was expelled from the ANC after accusing a top party official of corruption. Holomisa, the former military strongman in the former homeland of the Transkei, teamed up with Roelf Meyer, a former Nationalist Party Cabinet minister, to form the new party. Meyer later left politics to pursue other interests.

The party supports social democracy and envisages “the coming together of all in South Africa”, to build one nation that ensures a quality life for every citizen.

Ahead of the 2014 election, a faction of the Congress of the People led by Mbhazima Shilowa joined the UDM. While national support for the UDM remained small (only 1% of the vote), the party – shored up by disenchanted Cope supporters – strengthened its position in the Eastern Cape, overtaking Cope to became the third largest party in the province.

Freedom Front Plus/Vryheidsfront Plus (FF+)

(Image: Freedom Front Plus/Vryheidsfront Plus)

The Freedom Front was formed in 1993 by Constand Viljoen, the former chief of the South African Defence Force. Viljoen came out of retirement to lead a group of Afrikaners who wanted to form a political party.

As head of the Afrikaner Volksfront, Viljoen was instrumental in convincing conservative Afrikaners to participate in the new dispensation, through which, he argued, the issue of self determination should be taken up.

The Freedom Front Plus, which saw the Conservative Party and the Afrikaner Eenheids Beweging join forces with the FF ahead of the 2004 elections, aims to help Afrikaners to “protect their culture, education and values”, especially by tackling affirmative action, land reform as well as crime.

Headed by Pieter Mulder, the party retained its four seats in the National Assembly in the 2014 elections.

Congress of the People (Cope)

(Image: Congress of the People)

The Congress of the People (Cope) first contested elections in April 2009, winning 30 seats (7.42% of the vote). However, the infighting and bad decisions that followed saw supporters move to other opposition parties in the 2014 elections. Cope’s portion of the vote dropped to 0.67%, leaving the party with just three seats in the National Assembly.

Cope was formed at its first convention in Johannesburg in November 2008 by breakaway ANC members dissatisfied with that organisation’s decision to “recall” then-President Thabo Mbeki a few months earlier and replace him with Kgalema Motlanthe.

Its prominent founding members included Mosiuoa Lekota, the former minister of defence who resigned from the Cabinet after Mbeki stepped down, as well as former Gauteng Premier Mbhazima Shilowa.

The party’s name echoes the 1955 Congress of the People, which saw the Freedom Charter adopted by the ANC and other parties. The choice of name was subject to a legal challenge by the ANC, which was later dismissed by the Pretoria High Court.

Cope supports a participatory democracy and believes in the supremacy of the Constitution. Its founding principles include social cohesion as well as freedom and equality before the law. Its slogan is, “Reliable, accountable and incorruptile”.

Lekota and Shilowa’s locking of horns over leadership of the party also saw them land in court, but Lekota was re-elected as the party’s leader in January 2014. Former Congress of South African Trade Unions (Costau) president Willie Madisha was elected deputy president of Cope.

Smaller political parties in South Africa

African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP)

The African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) was formed in December 1993 with the aim of representing South African Christians in Parliament. It won two National Assembly seats in 1994 and six in 1999. It currently holds three seats.

The ACDP was the only party in the National Assembly that voted against the adoption of the Constitution in 1994, citing moral and Biblical objections to some of the document’s clauses – particularly the rights of gays and lesbians.

According to its manifesto, the ACDP stands for “Christian principles, freedom of religion, a free market economy, family values, community empowerment and human rights in a federal system”. Its leaders is Kenneth Meshoe.

African Independent Congress

The African Independent Congress was founded in December 2005 in protest against the ANC government’s decision to include the Matatiele locality into the Eastern Cape rather than KwaZulu-Natal.

The AIC explains on its website that they regard the ANC as arrogant for “ignoring the poor people of Matatiele”. It says that it “does not want to govern” but rather believes in a “more inclusive type of governance model” where ordinary citizens voices are considered in the political-decision making process.

In the 2009 elections, it won a seat in the Eastern Cape legislature. It reatained this seat in 2014 – as well as three seats in the National Assembly.


Agang SA

    • Two seats in the National Assembly

Formed at the beginning of 2013 by Mamphele Ramphele, Agang is the new kid on the block of South Africa’s political scene.

Agang, which is the Nguni word for “to build”, encourages reforms towards direct governance, striving to “build a stronger democracy in which citizens will be at the centre of public life”.

In January 2014, Ramphele accepted an invitation from the DA to stand as the official opposition’s presidential candidate in the 2014 general election. A few days later, however, Ramphele rejected the idea of joining the DA and the proposed merger fell through.

Matters did not improve after its shambolic start, and the party fared poorly in the 2014 elections, winning just 52 350 votes (0.28% of the vote, granting it two seats in the National Assembly). A few months later, amid reports of continuing internal conflict, Ramphele resigned, announcing her withdrawal from politics in July 2014.

Pan Africanist Congress (PAC)

The Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) was formed in 1959 as a breakaway from the ANC. Influenced by the Africanist ideals of Kwame Nkrumah, it promotes African nationalism and the return of the land to the indigenous people.

The PAC was outlawed with the ANC in 1960 after the Sharpeville massacre. Its leaders were exiled or detained for long periods. These included Robert Sobukwe, its founder and leader, who was incarcerated in Robben Island until 1969 and then placed under house arrest until his death in 1978.

Political infighting and numerous changes in leadership have contributed to a steady erosion of support since 1994, with voters favouring the ANC and the EFF. In the 2014 election, the PAC retained its single seat in parliament.

African People’s Convention (APC)

The African People’s Convention Azanian People’s Convention was created out of the 2007 defection of two prominent PAC members of parliament. It was the only party created by the now-abolished practice known as “floor-crossing” to contest the 2009 elections.

The party says it represents the “voice of the voiceless” with its Africanist socialist democratic principles, aimed at ensuring that “freedom and democracy have material meaning to all the citizens of the country”.


Minority Front (MF)

The Minority Front, created by the maverick Amichand Rajbansi and now led by his widow, Shameen Thakur-Rajbansi, says it represents the interests of all minorities. The party, however, finds the majority of its support among the Indian community, especially in Durban.

The Minority Front has held a seat in parliament since 1999, but lost this in the most recent election. It holds a single seat in the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature.

United Christian Democratic Party (UCDP)

The United Christian Democratic Party (UCDP) was formed by Lucas Mangope, head of the apartheid-era “homeland” of Bophuthatswana. Mangope was among the first homeland leaders to accept so-called independence for his scattered country for the Setswana-speaking people. The UCDP was the only party allowed to operate in the territories under his control.

The UCDP was the official opposition to the ANC in the North West province in 1999 and 2004, but it has been usurped by the EFF, which now holds five seats in the province where the Marikana massacre took place in 2013.

Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo)

The Azanian People’s Organisation preaches the philosophy of black emancipation and black consciousness, a philosophy popularised by Steve Biko, who was killed in police cells in 1977. Azapo lost its single seat representation in the National Assembly when it managed to gain only 0.11% of the national vote in the 2014 election.

*Updated July 2014

Source: South African Government Communication and Information System

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