South Africa’s Local Elections

With the 2014 General elections behind us, it is not too soon to start focusing on Local elections. This brief unpacks the components of South Africa's local elections.


With the 2014 General elections behind us, it is not too soon to start focusing on Local elections. My last brief was on the working of South Africa's General Elections ( Our National election – which determines the composition of the National Assembly – uses a closed party-list system and ensures a fair (i.e. proportional) sample of representatives by means of large voter districts and an equal number of fixed national and regional seats. Our local ‘municipal’ elections – which determine the composition of municipal councils – combine a closed party-list system with an open-list single-constituency ‘ward’ system, and concerns much smaller voting districts. Proportionality is maintained by awarding an equal number of seats on each council to parties, on the one hand, and individual representatives on the other.

South Africa's local elections are held every 5 years, in accordance with 5 year terms for municipal councils. An independent body, the Municipal Demarcation Board, delineates the boundaries of local government –‘wall-to-wall’ uniform local government structures for the entire country have been established.[1] In municipal elections, citizens vote on the composition of their municipal council. How citizens are required to vote, and for which councils, depends on the category of municipality a voter is registered in.


There are three categories of municipality[2]:
  • Category A: ‘Self-standing’, Metropolitan municipalities (or ‘Metros’)[3];
  • Category C: ‘Co-operative’, District municipalities[4]; and
  • Category B: Local municipalities, clustered within Category C districts [5].  
All municipalities have a municipal council. There are, therefore, three types of councils:
  • Metro councils, which govern Metros;
  • District councils, which govern Districts (Districts contain Local councils); and
  • Local councils, which govern Local municipalities;

Metros and Local municipalities are further delineated into wards.[6] In 2011 all Metro and Local municipalities had wards (this was not always the case) and the number of wards per province ranged from 194 (Northern Cape) to 828 (KwaZulu-Natal).[7]  Wards are considered small single-member constituencies each represented by an individual councillor, but fall under the jurisdiction of its Metro or Local municipality council.

Executive power in each municipal council is exercised through committees, which may be configured in various ways.[8] The composition of these committees is established by each council, post-election.[9] 

In Metros certain roles may be delegated to a metro sub-council and, in both Metros and Local councils, ward committees may participate in an advisory capacity.

In general[10], based on the number of registered voters in each area, Metro councils have a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 270 councillors; District and Local councils have a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 90 councillors.[11]  In 2011, there were 8 Metropolitan councils, 44 District councils, 226 Local councils, and 4277 Wards.[12] 


A voter registered in a Metro receives two ballots. One ballot lists the parties contesting the Metro and voters must cast a single vote for the party of their choice. The second ballot lists the individual representatives contesting the election in the voter’s ward. On this ballot voters cast a single vote for one individual ward candidate of their choice. Ward councillors may run as representatives of a particular party or as independents.

The seats on the Metro municipal council are split 50/50 – half the seats are allocated on an individual basis to those individuals who won their ward, i.e. to those individuals who won the most votes relative to the other competitors in their ward.[14] The other half of the seats are allocated proportionally to parties in accordance with their share of the vote in the Metro, taking into account the number of seats awarded to independent and party-affiliated ward councillors and adjusting the number of seats a party is entitled to accordingly.

If a voter is registered in a Local municipality they receive three ballots. Two ballots are used to determine the seating of the Local municipality council and the other ballot is used to determine 40% of the seating allocation to a District municipal council.

For the Local municipal council’s ballots the procedure is identical to that followed for Metro councils: The seating is split 50/50 and half the seats are allocated proportionally to parties, and the other half is allocated to ward winners.

For the District municipal council ballot voters cast a single vote for the party of their choice and these seats are allocated proportionally.

The other 60% of the seats on the District council are filled by representatives from each Local municipality that fall under the district – this is determined by the Local councils, not voters.


In municipal elections the electorate have some say in which individuals appear on the ballot. In local wards, the electorate may nominate individuals to appear on the ballot as independents, i.e. non-party affiliated individuals. After registering, an independent needs to submit 50 signatures to run for the ward.[15]  These independents appear alongside those party-affiliated individuals nominated by political parties.

The party lists (specifying the individuals who will occupy seats) for local elections are ‘open’ (as opposed to ‘closed’, or ‘free’) because voters select among individual representatives.    



[1] Iain Currie & Johan de Waal, 2001. 'The New Constitutional & Administrative Law: Volume 1: Constitutional Law'. Juta Law. pp.213-225. 
[2] ‘Establishment of municipalities’, Section 155 SA Constitution.
[3] There are 8 Metros in the country, each can be thought of as its own contained district: Ekurhuleni, City of Johannesburg, City of Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay, eThekwini, City of Cape Town, Buffalo City and Mangaung.
[4] In KwaZulu-Natal, for example, there are 10 District municipalities, e.g. Amajuba District Municipality, iLembe District Municipality, Sisonke District Municipality, etc.
[5] In KwaZulu-Natal, for example, there are 51 Local Municipalities, e.g. Umdoni Local Municipality, Mandeni Local Municipality, Nkandla Local Municipality, etc. (
[6] IEC (2011) Municipal Elections Report, pg. 10
[7] Ibid.
[8] Municipal Structures Act 1998, ss7 – 10. There are 3 forms of government:
  • A collective executive system [executive committee]
  • A mayoral executive system [mayor and mayoral committee]
  • A plenary executive system [municipal council]
And 2 ways to modify/supplement the governing structure (depending on the category and size of the municipality):
  • Sub-council participatory system [sub-councils] or/and [A]
  • Ward-participatory system [Ward committees] [A&B]
[9] Municipal Structures Act, 1998, s45
[10] See The Municipal Structures Act, Section 18 (5)
[11] Municipal Structures Act , Section 20 (1(b)(c))
[12] IEC (2011) Municipal Elections Report, pg 10. Note that ‘District Management Areas’ were phased out in 2011.
[13] See Municipal Structures Act 1998, Schedule 1 and 2.
[14] This is a first-past-the-post system in single-member constituencies, i.e. ‘wards’.
[15] IEC (2011) Municipal Elections Report, pg. 18
*The Municipal Systems Act (32 of 2000), URL:
*Electoral Commission of South Africa (2011). 'Love your South Africa: Municipal Elections Report 2011', URL:
*Iain Currie & Johan de Waal, 2001. 'The New Constitutional & Administrative Law: Volume 1: Constitutional Law'. Juta Law. pp.213-225. 
*Gallagher, M and Mitchell, P (2005). Introduction to Electoral Systems. In: Michael Gallagher and Paul Mitchell (Eds), 2005, "The Politics of Electoral Systems" (pp. 3 - 23). New York: Oxford University Press.
Wim Louw
HSF researcher