About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.


Representativeness in the South African context should be seen from the perspective of pluralism and a plural society. Pluralism emphasizes the existence and the value of a plurality of entities in a specific environment and may approached it within a philosophical, religious or political context. The emphasis here will be on political pluralism. For the purposes of this section pluralism may be defined as a political philosophy in which a person is described as acting in society not as an isolated and sovereign individual but within a plurality of groups (Degenaar in De Crespigny and Schrire, 1978:223).

In addition to the pluralistic nature of South African society, the concept of representativeness is heavily influenced by the transition which this society is at present (1996) experiencing and will be experiencing into the next century. This means that the concept, the dimensions and the pattern of representativeness reflect both the pre-1990 and the present situations, keeping in mind the ideal situation (in South African terms) sought by this society in transition. The issues of pluralism and transition puts South African society more or less in line with the American concept of representativeness, where the values of legitimacy and responsiveness are major issues.

The Concept of Representation

Representation within the South African civil service reflects past policies and especially the ideology of ethnic socialism practised by governments from 1948 to the early 1990s. In its annual report to Parliament, tabled on 10 June 1996, the Public Service Commission stated that in 1994, as far as managerial positions in the civil service were concerned, 5% were occupied by women, those of Indian descent 3%, black South Africans 2% and so-called Coloureds 1%. This means that 89% of all managerial positions were occupied by white (mostly Afrikaans-speaking) males.

The South African Constitution guarantees equal opportunities for all South Africans. As far as the civil service is concerned, the policy of the government places heavy emphasis on equal employment opportunities (EEO). As a result of the imbalances of the past which created and perpetuated a situation where a minority elite of white (mostly Afrikaans-speaking) males could occupy almost 90 of all managerial positions in civil service, the government embarked on a programme of affirmative action (AA). The ultimate goal of the AA programme is to create a civil service which will, within the shortest possible time, reflect the diversity of South African society.

It will obviously not be possible to reflect all of the multitude of diversities present in South African society. The immediate objective is to fill as many as possible managerial and other positions within the civil service with black persons and to step up the percentage of women occupying those positions. As a short-term measure 11 000 general positions were advertised recently, to which more than 1,5 million persons responded. In total, 45% of these positions were allocated to blacks, 35% to whites, 12% to Coloureds and 8% to South African Asians. Women were placed in 45% of these positions.

Compared to the situation in 1994, 30% of all managerial positions in the civil service were occupied by blacks in 1996, 4% by South African Asians and 3% by Coloureds. A total of 20 of the 38 directors-general (the highest managerial position within the civil service) were occupied by blacks. The percentage of women of all races in the civil service in 1996 was elevated to 10, while, in total, women occupied almost 50% of all positions within the civil service.

The statistics seem to indicate that the AA programme has produced quick results for black persons and for women, but that the relative positions of Coloureds and South African Asians have hardly improved in this respect. Therefore, progress is being made, but it is difficult to fathom how the civil service of the future could ever reflect the extraordinary diversity of South African society. South Africa's population of 40,7 million people is made up of a few remaining members of the San, of Nguni people, who constitute almost two-thirds of the entire population and speak mainly isiXhosa, isiZulu, siSwati and isiNdebele; the Sotho-Tswana people, who have among them South, North and West Sotho (Tswana), each with their own language; the Tsonga; the Venda; Coloureds; Asians; Afrikaners; English persons; people who have immigrated to South Africa from Europe, Africa and other regions and are still maintaining their own traditions, language and culture; and the Chinese people, who also maintain a strong cultural identity (Republic of SA, 1996b:1). This diversity is also not spread evenly in a demographic sense.

The Dimension of Representativeness

The South African civil service has for centuries played a dominant role in society, and this is also true of 1996. At the end of 1995 a total of 1,3 million persons were employed in the civil service, which represents 8,8% of all employees in South Africa and 3,3% of the total population.

Given the present (1996) policy of affirmative action, the system of merit has not been abandoned. The merit system, in large measure designed to protect public employees from undue partisan influence and coercion (Nigro and Nigro, 1986:194), deliberately places obstacles in the way of those trying to exert political discipline over the bureaucracy.

In the ideal democracy envisaged for South Africa, political and administrative authority are balanced by accountability. Authority may be derived from anyone or a combination of sources, including popular election, appointment, customary law and force of personality (charisma) (Weber, 1947:120-145). Accountability implies that representatives are empowered to act for others, but are restrained and made responsive by a variety of electoral, judicial and institutional processes. In the South African democracy, representative government is seen as a structure for balancing and articulating different interests. Appointed representatives are expected to act for a variety of groups, with overlapping as well as conflicting interests, and the need to satisfy these groups encourages compromise and discourages radical and extreme positions. In this type of active representativeness, responsiveness and accountability to constituencies are promoted by various means, including the removal of incumbents from their appointed office.

The process of responsiveness in the context of transition is described by Frederickson (1980:55) as follows: in a status quo position, responsiveness "...requires effective scanning of open information within the organization so it can sense when adaption is required"; in transition, responsiveness "...requires widespread participation by clients, chiefly for purposes of cooptation"; and after transition, responsiveness "...requires effective scanning of clients and constituents so that they can elicit adapation when it is required". Hopefully, after transition, South African society will reach the position envisaged by Frederickson.

The Pattern of Representativeness

Before 27 April 1994 the South African central political structure was based on the apartheid ideology (that may be called ethnic socialism), where the country was ruled by a centralised, sovereign parliament (based on the Westminster model) which was elected by a minority of voters consisting of the racially classified White, Coloured and Asian sections of the population. Separate 'homelands' were created for black South Africans on an ethnic basis and given the option of either 'self-rule' or total independence. Political parties, such as the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party and the Pan-Africanist Congress were banned from participating in any election.

Except for the self-ruling homelands, there were no regional governments at the beginning of 1994, as the governments of the then existing four provinces had been abolished during the 1960s. At the local level, governments elected on separate voters' rolls by Whites, Coloureds, Asians and Blacks were in place. This meant, inter alia, that four separate local councils had jurisdiction over town areas hardly large enough, as far as population and revenue were concerned, for one council. The regions between towns and cities were under the jurisdiction of regional services councils, the members of which were appointed on a multi-ethnic basis by the central government and the various councils within the areas of jurisdiction of the regional services councils.

The 1993 transitional Constitution provided for one reconstituted central parliament for the whole of South Africa, of which the members were elected on a common voters' roll. At the same time provincial councillors were elected to the governments of nine newly constituted provinces by voters on common voters' rolls for each province. Many of the powers of the central government were devolved to the provinces. Transitional local town / city (urban) and district (rural) councils were elected by voters on common voters roles for newly established cities, city sub-structures, towns and rural structures in November 1995, May 1996 and June 1996.

The new 1996 Constitution was approved by Parliament on 10 May 1996 and, after directing that certain amendments be made, the Constitutional Court approved the final draft. The main point is that South Africa has moved from a system of a sovereign central government to a system where the Constitution is supreme, that is the rule of law.

Over more than four decades the South African administrative system has moved from a reasonably decentralised structure, to a highly centralised one where even the administrations of the four provinces became agencies of the central government. The 1996 Constitution provides again for decentralised authority being exercised by the nine provincial administrations in areas such as education, safety and security, transport and health.

South African society is highly diversified. It is also very unstable at the moment, mainly because of the escalation of political and other crimes, high levels of violence, the high levels of migration to urban areas (especially the larger cities), and the exceptionally high rates of unemployment. Part of the reason may be that many South African have been marginalised and that great segments of society are disadvantaged as a result of past ideologies. The full benefits of democracy will take time to become fully established and the results of ethnic socialism will take even longer to eradicate.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.