How elections work

Local government elections must be held at least once every five years.
There are three types of municipalities. They are:

  • Metropolitan
  • local
  • district

Metropolitan and local municipalities

Most municipalities are divided into areas called wards. And, in most municipalities, there are two ways of being elected as a councillor. The first way is to be elected as a ward councillor.

A ward councillor is an official elected to represent an area (or “ward”) on council. This councillor can represent a political party, can stand as an independent candidate or represent a local association such as the Ratepayers Association. The candidate who receives the most votes in a ward is elected as the ward councillor. This is called the “first past the post” electoral system. If the ward councillor leaves office for any reason, such as resigning, a by-election must be held to elect a new councillor.

Ward councillors make up half of the representatives elected to the council. The other half are elected as party representatives through a system called proportional representation (PR), based on the proportion (percentage share) of votes their political party receives in the election. They are known as PR councillors.

Because ward councillors are elected by their wards they are more directly accountable to their communities than PR councillors who are more directly accountable to the political party that put them on the list.

Municipalities that have ward councillors may establish ward committees. These committees should be a tool for the participation of communities in local government.

District municipalities are not divided into wards. Of the district councillors, 60% are appointed by their local municipalities and the remaining 40% are elected directly by the voters based on PR.

Voters in these district municipalities cast three votes: one vote for a ward candidate, one vote for a party on the local council, and one vote for a party on the district council.

Local government elections are different from provincial or national elections, as national and provincial elections only use the PR system where voters vote only for a political party and not for individual candidates. 

Register to vote

You can only vote if you are registered on the voters’ roll, so make sure you are registered! You can check to see if you are registered to vote by contacting the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) or your Municipal Electoral Office. You will need your ID number.

In order to register you must:

  • be at least 16 years old (you can register to vote at 16, but need to be 18 to vote)
  • apply for registration in person
  • be a South African citizen (permanent residents cannot vote, even if they have a green ID book)
  • have and show a valid bar-coded ID book or a valid temporary identity certificate.

The deadline to apply to register to vote is the day before the election is proclaimed – check with the IEC for the exact date.

If you are not able to go to the voting station because you have a disability or are out of the country, you can apply to vote in advance, in a special vote. You only need to register once unless you move or the boundaries of your voting district change, in which case you must reregister there. You must vote in the municipal ward where you are registered to vote.

Nomination of ward candidates 

Your participation in elections is not only restricted to voting. Your community can also nominate candidates who you believe will represent and fight for the interests of your community. Anyone who ordinarily lives in a municipality where they are registered to vote can nominate a candidate or stand for election. In order to be eligible the candidate must:

  • be a South African citizen with a valid ID
  • accept the nomination and file the necessary forms with the IEC before the deadline for nominations
  • obtain the signatures of 50 people eligible to vote in your municipality using the form provided by the IEC
  • pay a deposit (depending on the size of your municipality, as set by the IEC. It is refunded after the election if the candidate receives 10% or more of the vote).

Candidates who are employees of local, provincial or national governments, or elected representatives in other national, provincial, or local governments, if elected, must resign from their job before taking office. Political parties must be registered with the IEC to run PR candidates. Each party sets their own procedures for nominations to the PR list. If you are a member of a political party, this is another way you can get involved in the selection of candidates – by attending nomination meetings and electing party candidates. PR candidates must meet the same criteria and party lists are registered with the IEC and available to the public.