South Africa


The ballots have been cast – now what?

The ballots have been cast – now what?
The launch in Johannesburg of the Electoral Commission National Results Operation Centre at Gallagher Convention Centre on May 22, 2024. (Photo: Lubabalo Lesolle / Gallo Images)

The 29 May elections are the first step. Next, it’s the swearing-in of the newly elected MPs, a presidential inauguration, a new Cabinet and the opening of the new Parliament. All with a fair bit of pomp and ceremony. Here’s how it unfolds.

The voting stations are closed. What now?

The counting of votes starts right after the 23,303 voting stations close at 9pm on Wednesday. At each voting station, the ballots are counted by Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) staff in front of political party and independent candidate agents, observers and others. 

Once counted, the IEC counting officer and independent and political party agents all sign off on a result slip. A copy is posted physically at each voting station. The result slip is transported to where it will be captured, audited and uploaded – updates are displayed as they come in on billboards in the IEC results centres.

The live results feed is also available to media, analysts like the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) for number-crunching on the go, and just about anyone who’s applied to the IEC to get this feed.

The count is over. What must the IEC do now?

The IEC has seven days from voting day to declare the elections. That’s jargon for announcing the final results, including legislature seats for political parties and independents in both the national and provincial polls. This makes it official, as required in the electoral laws. 

Since 2004, the pattern has been that after the vote on a Wednesday, the IEC declares the results and seats on Saturday. In 2024, that would be 1 June. But the last day for the IEC to declare the election results is 5 June.

Usually, this declaration of results is turned into a live broadcast event, addressed by the President. The admin schlep is giving the results and seat allocations to the Secretary to Parliament and the provincial legislature secretaries so they can prepare for the new lawmakers’ swearing-in. The chief justice, who runs the swearing-in of MPs in the National Assembly, also gets a copy.

The IEC declaration of results and seats is a statutorily required step and formally ends the election.

Election day resources

Votes declared, political parties and independents now know whether and how many of them have made it to the legislatures… 

It’s crunch time, especially if coalitions are needed to form the national government and/or provincial administrations. The Constitution in Section 51(1) allows a maximum of 14 days before the National Assembly must sit. The chief justice determines the date and publishes it in the Government Gazette.

There is no flexibility like, for example, in the Netherlands where a conservative coalition government is expected by the end of June 2024, over six months after the November 2023 poll. Or Finland, which only announced its four conservative party coalition government in late June 2023 after the 2 April elections. Or Belgium, which remained without a government for 652 days from December 2018 to October 2020 before a coalition was clinched.

If the National Assembly does not meet within 14 days, the Constitution stipulates the President must call a new election within 90 days from the date Parliament’s term expires. That date would be 21 May, counting from when the MPs were sworn in for their five-year term after the 2019 elections. It is a highly unlikely scenario.

Bottom line, South Africa’s politicians have 14 days to get their act together. 

If coalitions at the national level must be cobbled together, heavy pressure is on. If coalitions in a province or two are needed, it’s even more of a pressure cooker.

All eyes on the National Assembly

All 400 MPs are sworn in by Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, or a judge he delegates this to, on the date set by the top judge. Traditionally, the MPs are sworn in in the morning. 

In 2024, an additional twist is the location. The National Assembly building remains gutted from the 2 January 2022 fire, leading to its meeting in the Cape Town City Hall for occasions like the Budget and the State of the Nation Address. 

Preparations from venue to logistics are under way. (Similar preparations unfold in each province, where the swearing-in of MPLs traditionally follows a day or so after the National Assembly’s process.)

At the National Assembly, once the 400 MPs are sworn in, the Speaker is elected in a process overseen by the chief justice. Then the Speaker takes the chair to preside over the election of the deputy speaker. If more than one candidate is nominated, a secret ballot vote is held on the floor of the House. 

Never has the deputy speaker’s post been contested. Only once was a vote needed for Speaker when, in 2014, the DA nominated their MP Nosimo Balindlela. She lost the contest to ANC national chairperson Baleka Mbete with 88 votes to 260. 

After the Speaker and deputy are elected, the chief justice is back in the presiding officer’s chair for the election of the president.

How is the president elected?

Traditionally it unfolds after lunch. The chief justice will call for nominations from the floor. All nominations must be made on a form, signed and seconded. The nominee must accept the nomination in writing.

If only one nomination for president is made, that’s it – it’s all done and dusted. 

If more than one person is nominated for president, it goes to a secret ballot, and “the candidate who receives a majority of the votes” is declared the winner, according to Schedule 3 Part A of the Constitution. 

Such a vote only happened once before – in 2009, when Cope proposed Bishop Mvume Ddandala as president against the ANC’s nominee Jacob Zuma, who clinched the election with 277 votes against 47.

2024 could turn out to be interesting if, for example, more than two presidential candidates were nominated. This all depends on election outcomes, possible coalitions and, potentially, political brinkmanship.

If more than two presidential candidates are nominated, it’s into uncharted waters. However, the Constitution sets out a process that’s effectively a run-off. The candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated until the nominee with the majority of votes remains standing. That nominee is then declared president.

The new president is elected, now what?

While some words of presidential thanks to MPs usually follow, it’s not a must. What is a must is that the newly elected president ceases to be an MP and within five days “must assume office by swearing or affirming faithfulness to the Republic and obedience to the Constitution”, according to Section 87 of South Africa’s supreme law.

That’s a fancy way of saying, presidential inauguration.

Until 2019, the inauguration happened at the Union Buildings following in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela, who, on 10 May 1994, was sworn in as South Africa’s first democratically elected president. 

After the 2019 elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa took the oath of office at the Loftus Versfeld rugby stadium to, according to a media statement, “allow for greater public participation”.

Where and how the 2024 presidential inauguration unfolds remains to be seen.

Presidential swearing-in done, surely now it’s over?

No. The focus falls on the newly sworn-in president to announce the Cabinet, or group of ministers, and the wider executive that includes deputy ministers.

All of this is completely at the discretion of the president, but these appointments, while the prerogative of the president, are made with input from the ruling party. 

In 2019, it all took an unusually long time – four days. This signalled last-minute lobbying and jockeying given the ANC’s factional friction.

Previously, the Cabinet was announced the day after the inauguration. 

Madiba announced his government of national unity on 11 May 1994. His successor, Thabo Mbeki, followed this timeline in 1999 and 2004. Ditto, Zuma in 2009 and 2014.

The announcement of the Cabinet is the first indication of how the new administration aims to do its work, and the seniority of ministerial appointments indicates priorities.

Now it’s done, right?

No, not yet. As these national processes unfold, provincial legislatures must take their own key steps, like determining their six-strong permanent delegation to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). 

The Constitution allows 30 days from the declaration of election results for this. The composition of an NCOP permanent delegation depends on the representation of political parties in a provincial legislature, with the formula found in Schedule 3 Part B of the Constitution. But first, each legislature must swear in its MPLs, and then, in an echo of national processes, follows the election of speaker, deputy speaker and premier.

Once provincial legislatures have determined who their six NCOP permanent delegates are, the legislature – with the premier – determines the four special delegates. Once all this is done, the NCOP can meet and elect its chairperson. The swearing-in and election proceedings are like those in the National Assembly. 

Once all these processes in the NCOP, National Assembly and presidency are completed, the final step can happen.

Another opening of Parliament wraps the post-election processes – and the first order of business, the Budget

It’s not a State of the Nation Address, but an opening of Parliament according to parliamentary rules. But the aim is similar – the president sets out the priorities and programmes of the new administration at the start of the new administration. 

The fastest this ever took place was in 1999 when Mbeki was elected on 14 June, inaugurated on 16 June and the opening of Parliament held on 25 June. Since then the norm has been three-and-a-half weeks between presidential inauguration and the opening of Parliament. 

By then, all committee chairpersons and House chairpersons should be in place, alongside political parties’ chief whips – independents will have to do this by themselves.

Among the first orders of business, deciding which of the outstanding matters from the previous 2019-2024 Parliament – from legislation to statutory appointments and committee oversight reports – to revive for further processing. Perhaps even more pressing is passing the Budget by 31 July, a tough deadline.

Parliament will have to hit the ground running. DM


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