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EXPLAINER: What next for South Africa, following unprecedented 2024 election outcome?

The word ‘coalition’ has dominated public debate in the days following the 29 May vote. But what are the practical next steps to forming a government where no party has received an outright majority?

South Africa’s 2024 national election results have been officially announced, with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) failing to secure a majority for the first time since 1994. 

Parties from across the political spectrum are in talks to form a government. Several analyses and opinion editorials have explored the available options, from coalition agreements between unlikely partners to a minority government. 

In this explainer, we go back to the basics. With no party obtaining an outright majority, what will parliament look like? What is a coalition government? And what happens if opposition parties cannot agree on a way forward?

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How seats are allocated in the national assembly

Political parties receive a share of seats in parliament in direct proportion to the number of votes they got in the election. 

The 2024 election included a regional ballot, allowing independent candidates to contest for the first time. The results from the regional ballot were factored into the seat calculation, according to a complex formula

Based on the calculation, 18 parties will share 400 seats in the national assembly. No independent candidates received enough votes to get a seat. 

Parties will fill these seats according to ranked candidate lists submitted to Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, the most senior judge of the constitutional court and head of the judiciary of South Africa.


Now that seats have been allocated …

Candidates will be sworn into parliament at the first sitting of the national assembly which must take place within 14 days after the results of the election have been declared. This is according to the South African constitution. 

This means the first sitting of the national assembly should take place on or before 17 June. At the first sitting, members of parliament must elect the speaker, the deputy speaker and the president

The president is elected via a call for nominations. If there is more than one candidate, a secret ballot is held, where each member of parliament is entitled to cast a vote. 

According to Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, it is likely that there will be more than one candidate, even if it is a symbolic or “token” nomination. 

A spanner in the works?

The uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) Party, formed in December 2023, received 14.6% of the vote in its debut election. It has rejected the election results and threatened to boycott the first sitting of the national assembly. 

A quorum is the minimum number of members of a group necessary to be present at a meeting. For the national assembly, the quorum is one third – or 133 members

The MK Party has 58 seats in the national assembly. If all its members boycotted the first sitting, there would still be 342 members left – more than enough for a quorum. 

The ANC alone has enough seats – 159 – to meet the quorum and proceed with the first sitting.  

The 14-day deadline

The constitution outlines only one scenario in which the 14-day deadline for the election of a president may be extended. Where two candidates receive the same number of votes, another meeting must be held within seven days.

A coalition government

A coalition government exists when two or more political parties combine their votes to form a government. 

The ANC does not have a majority in the national assembly and requires the support of other parties. It is currently in talks with several opposition parties. 

There is no set formula or procedure for forming a coalition government. The relevant political parties would ideally negotiate a partnership before the first sitting of the national assembly. But a final coalition agreement does not need to be in place by this time. Political parties may have preliminary agreements about which candidate to nominate as president, with coalition talks continuing even after the first sitting. 

A minority government

A minority government exists when the governing party does not hold a majority of seats in parliament. In this scenario, it can be difficult to pass legislation.

If it is unable to form a coalition, the ANC might consider forming a minority government. It could sign agreements with other political parties to vote together on crucial issues, such as the budget, but may have to lobby for support on other legislation.

UPDATE - 07/06/2024

On 6 June, ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa invited other parties to form a government of national unity (GNU). He said talks had already begun with the Democratic Alliance, Economic Freedom Fighters, Inkatha Freedom Party, National Freedom Party and Patriotic Alliance.

But what are the differences between a coalition government and a GNU?

Instead of a coalition between one or two major parties, a GNU could include a larger group of partners. According to Dr Oscar van Heerden, a researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for African Diplomacy and Leadership, this changes “the parameters of negotiations”. Where one or two partners may have been elevated in a coalition government, in a GNU, all political parties are equal players. 

Over the next few days, ANC negotiators will continue to engage with other political parties. Ramaphosa has said that any agreements between parties will be made public.

We will continue to update this explainer as more details emerge.

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