There is currently a lot of confusion in the media and amongst the electorate about the use of the terminology of Official Opposition and Leader of the Official Opposition. The confusion mainly arises from the transition in South Africa from a Constituency system to that of a Proportional Election system.



For 84 years South Africa had an election system which was based upon constituencies. The system was largely the same as the British system and shows similarities with the system which is used in the USA. This type of election system nearly always results in only two strong political parties. The strongest party becomes the government because this party usually wins more than 50% of the seats. It is not automatically so that this party had gained more than 50% of the votes.


Since 1994 South Africa has a proportional election system which is found in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and in various other countries. In such an election system it always results, after an election, in many (from 7 up to 12) political parties being in Parliament. Usually no political party has an outright majority. The strongest political party usually has between 35% and 45% of the support. A government can therefore only be formed by forming a coalition between various political parties.



In the Constituency election system the opposition is known as the Official Opposition. Their leader is known as the Leader of the Official Opposition because there is usually only one clear and strong alternative political party identifiable after the election. The Labour- and Conservative parties in Britain succeed each other in this manner. The same occurs between the Democrats and the Republicans in the USA. In South Africa's history it was the Sap- and Nat parties or the NP and CP later which had fulfilled these roles. When a third party comes to the fore, it usually is insignificantly small. Because this is mainly a two-party system, the Leader of the Official Opposition sees himself / herself as a shadow president/prime- minister and even appoints a shadow cabinet.


Because none of the political parties usually obtain more than 50% of the support in a proportional system, the government is formed through a coalition between smaller and larger political parties. It could be any kind of combination as has been seen in Israel. The Green Party in Germany has for years now been part of the government having less than 7% of the electorates support. The smaller and larger parties which is not part of the government, thus forms the opposition. The opposition parties can co-operate in various ways or can continue on their own. There is however not a single party which can be appointed as an official opposition as a future coalition-government can be formed from any possible combination of political parties. There is therefore not a single person which is appointed as a shadow president/prime minister and therefore appointed as Leader of all the Opposition parties.


With the transformation from the constituency system to the proportional system in South Africa in 1994, the procedures and concepts of the two systems were still being confused. As part of the constitutional negotiations the National Party negotiated for its own status and future position, knowing that the ANC would be the government. For that reason we have Section 57(2)( d) in our Constitution. According to this section, the leader of the largest opposition party in the National Assembly is acknowledged as the Leader of the Opposition. This section is clearly a remainder of the old system in which the National Party wanted to secure a certain status for itself. The DA now also calls on this section in order to distinguish themselves from other opposition parties.

The reality of the proportional system in South Africa has already pointed out the failure in the thinking of section 57(2)(d). There are currently 16 political parties in Parliament. Fifteen (15) of these parties are opposition parties. The DA is the largest opposition party currently occupying 47 seats in Parliament. It is therefore correct to refer to the DA as the largest opposition party or the largest minority party. Mr. Tony Leon is therefore also currently the Leader of the Largest Opposition Party.

It is however not correct to refer to the DA as the Official Opposition. What makes the DA or the largest opposition party "official" ? Does that mean that the other opposition parties are "un-official" ? There are currently 107 opposition members in the SA Parliament. There are considerably more non-DA opposition members than there are DA-members. It is typical of a proportional system and is exactly the difference between a constituency system and a proportional system. The thirteen other opposition parties do not acknowledge the DA leader as leader of the opposition who may speak or act on their behalf. They therefore also do not acknowledge that one person may have the title of “Leader of the Opposition”, as he is not the leader of the majority of the opposition. The use of the title Leader of the Official Opposition creates the impression with the electorate that this person makes statements and takes a stand on issues on behalf of all opposition parties. It often creates problems and takes a lot of effort from other parties to rectify the misapprehension of their supporters.

It is necessary for Parliament, the media and the electorate to comprehend these differences and to use it correctly.

The 13 "smaller" parties in Parliament have discussed this issue and they mandated me to put their point of view to this Committee. They are in agreement that the current title "Leader of the Official Opposition" is inappropriate to our constitutional dispensation and that it should be amended. They are open to alternative proposals such as for example "Leader of the Largest Minority Party" or "Leader of the largest party not in Government" There was disagreement however amongst these 13 parties with regard to the status afforded to this specific individual. Some parties were off the opinion that no special status should be afforded - while others were off the opinion that some special recognition should be given to the person in that position.

27 October 2006