A Long Walk To Universal Franchise In South Africa

Recently, there has been a debate in the media about universal franchise. This brief outlines the history of the franchise in South Africa before Union (1910) until complete universal adult franchise in 1994.

The Meaning of “Universal Franchise”


Universal franchise involves the extension of the right to vote to all citizens. 

Historically, universal suffrage is a relatively recent basis for political organisation, associated with the growth of political liberalism and struggles around the rights to political freedom and equality.

Despite “universal franchise” and “democracy” being used almost interchangeably, universal franchise is a necessary condition for democracy, not a sufficient one. To be effective, the formal right to vote must be exercised without intimidation and through free and fair elections. This in turn requires a range of other liberties, including freedom of association, assembly and organisation, free speech – and a free media. Open access to adequate campaign funding is another important factor.
Samuel Huntington defines a government as being:

"…democratic to the extent that its most powerful collective decision-makers are selected through fair, honest and periodic elections in which candidates freely compete for votes and in which virtually all the adult population is eligible to vote" .

"To the extent, for instance, that a political system denies voting participation to part of its society—as the South African system did to the 70 percent of its population that was black, as Switzerland did to the 50 percent of its population that was female, or as the United States did to the 10 percent of its population that were southern blacks—it is undemocratic".

Over the past two hundred years or so the right to vote for political representatives was attained progressively in various countries, initially in Europe and North America and now around the world. Broadly speaking, the movement was from a qualified franchise to universal suffrage. During the nineteenth century the  franchise was extended  from  a small number of substantial property-holders to men of the new middle classes and the working classes; in the early twentieth century to women; and then to all citizens irrespective of race in the period of decolonisation after the Second World War. In the Soviet Union and other communist countries known as ‘peoples democracies’ the formal right to vote was negated by the lack of other political freedoms, up to 1989.

The distinctive feature about South Africa’s political trajectory is that while other countries were extending the franchise, it was increasingly restricted in this country on the basis of race, and common rights of citizenship were denied to black South Africans until 1994.


Overview of the franchise in South African history
Before Union


In the Cape Colony, the franchise, although qualified in other ways, allowed all men to vote regardless of race.  The Cape Qualified Franchise was introduced in 1853 when a representative government was formed with an elected parliament. This was voted for by electors on a non-racial voters roll, as guaranteed in the Cape’s 1853 Constitution.  The main motive for the enfranchisement of non-white citizens was to maintain peace in the towns of the Cape frontiers. 

The Cape system allowed for any man with a minimum property ownership or £25 to vote.

Ordinarily, relatively few non-whites qualified to vote, even though the requirement was exceptionally low. This was because many black Africans lived in rural areas lacking both infrastructure and information. Many African people did not know about their constitutional right to vote. They were also unable to register, as voting stations were located too far from their homes. 

In 1872, the Cape’s Responsible Government Constitution was implemented. This also ensured a non-racial franchise.  However, over time, as more black Africans exercised their right to vote, both British and Afrikaner interests were threatened by black African political consciousness.

Cecil John Rhodes and Gordon Sprigg, Anglophile leaders of the Progressive Party, which came to power in the 1880s, proceeded to enact legislation that would curb the voting rights of non-white citizens, especially in the Eastern Cape.

The Cape Parliamentary Registration Act of 1887 , implemented by Spriggs provided that all “tribal forms of tenure from the property qualifications for the vote" were to be prohibited from voting.  This Act, which disenfranchised many Cape black African citizens as they were communal/tribal-land owners, faced fierce opposition in Parliament as liberal MPs argued that it undermined the Constitution. Xhosa politicians took this as a real threat and over the next 5 years rallied hundreds of non-white citizens living in rural areas to register to vote.

In 1887, Rhodes, then Prime Minister, stated in Parliament that:

"The native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism, such as works in India, in our relations with the barbarism of South Africa.”

In 1892 the Cape Franchise and Ballot Act  was passed. This raised the £25 franchise qualification to £75 which disenfranchised a significantly high number of black African and coloured voters and inadvertently poorer whites. This Act was not unlawful or unconstitutional as it still allowed a non-racial franchise. Along with the £75 qualification, an educational qualification was also added requiring all voters to be literate. This immediately disenfranchised the majority of Xhosa voters who were oral communicators and had not yet learnt to read or white. 

Two years later, Rhodes promulgated the Glen Grey Act (1894), which strengthened Spriggs’ earlier efforts on the exclusion of non-white land holders .
In the Transvaal and the Orange Free State only white men had voting rights.
In Natal nearly all black Africans were effectively excluded from the franchise.  


The Union and after


At the time of Union in 1910, efforts to have the multi-racial franchise extended to the rest of South Africa were unsuccessful.  The South Africa Act allowed the Cape Province to keep its traditional multi-racial franchise, however, limited by property and education qualifications. The Parliament of the Union of South Africa was given the power to prescribe all voting qualifications as well as the power to change the Cape’s requirements by a two-third vote. A loophole in this Act subsequently allowed for the disenfranchisement of black Africans and coloureds and enabled the apartheid government to abolish the Cape Franchise in later years.

At Union only 15% of the electorate was non-white in the Cape Province.  In the Transvaal and the Orange Free State the vote was limited to white men over the age of 21. In Natal the franchise was open to all men but they had to meet property and literacy qualifications which disqualified many non-white men, so that 99% of the Natal electorate was white. Only white men were allowed to stand for election to Parliament.

In 1930 the Women’s Enfranchisement Act was enacted by the National Party which granted white women over the age of 21, the right to vote and stand for election. (Leila Reitz was the country’s first female MP, elected in 1933 on a South Africa Party ticket).  The qualification of property ownership or education not did apply to women as it did to men. The 1931 Franchise Law Amendment Act changed this so that all white men and white women were enfranchised without qualifications. Qualifications however still applied to non-white voters in the Cape Province and Natal.

The 1936 Representation of Natives Act  was implemented by the Hertzog government which removed all black African voters from the common voters’ roll and instead placed them on a separate native voters roll. Black African voters had to separately vote for 3 members of the Assembly, 2 members of the Cape Provincial Council, 4 Senators and local councils. 

In 1951 the Separate Representation of Voters Act was passed by the Nationalist government removing coloured from the common voters roll. This Act had been passed, despite fierce opposition, without a two-thirds majority of both Houses of Parliament sitting together as prescribed by the South Africa Act, and was therefore declared invalid by the Supreme Court in 1952.  In the 1953 elections, coloured voters were still casting their votes with white voters. However, two years later, the Nationalist government passed an act which reconstituted the Senate, packing it to pass the Separate Representation of Voters Act. In 1959 the Natives Act was repealed, and native representative members’ seats were abolished in 1960. From this point onwards, black Africans were politically represented only in Bantustans.

From 1958 to 1970 coloured voters were still allowed 4 seats  in Parliament. But in 1970, the Separate Representation of Voters Act ended coloured representation barring limited voting rights for a Coloured Persons Representative Council, which was later disbanded in 1980.

In 1983 in the face of mounting political pressures, a Tricameral Parliament was formed with three separate chambers for whites (House of Assembly), coloureds (House of Representatives) and Indians (House of Delegates). Black South Africans did not have representation in Parliament, but were granted voting rights for black local government structures.

In 1994, under the Interim Constitution in the first ever democratic vote all South Africans irrespective of race and gender were allowed to participate if they were 18 and over. The 1996 Constitution underlined that to achieve complete universal adult franchise there needed to be “a national common voters roll, regular elections and a multi-party system of democratic government". The Constitutional Court has denied attempts to disallow the vote being extended to convicted criminals in prison and continues to protect the rights of all citizens.




[1] Huntington, Samuel. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.
[2] Ibid.
[3] P. A. Molteno: The life and times of Sir John Charles Molteno, K. C. M. G., First Premier of Cape Colony, Comprising a History of Representative Institutions and Responsible Government at the Cape. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1900
[4] WHP Greswell. Our South African Empire. Chapman and Hall. 1885
[6] RH. Davenport. South Africa: A modern history of T. 1987. Pp 108
[8] RH. Davenport. South Africa: A modern history of T. 1987. Pp 108
[10] B Magubane. The making of a racist state: British imperialism and the Union of South Africa,  1875-1910. 1996. Pp108.
[12] B Magubane. The making of a racist state: British imperialism and the Union of South Africa,  1875-1910. 1996. Pp108.
[15] P. Lewsen: John X. Merriman: paradoxical South African statesman. Johannesburg: Ad.Donker, 1982. p.55.
[16] B Magubane. The making of a racist state: British imperialism and the Union of South Africa,  1875-1910. 1996. Pp108.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] The South African Constitution, pp 101–109
[21] The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.  Chapter 1. Section 1 (d), 1996


Ashleigh Fraser  –
Helen Suzman Foundation