top of page

Lessons for the Region – Inclusive Democracy and Electoral Practices in South Africa

By Bonolo Makgale

Thirty years into its democracy, South Africa continues to reimagine and refine its democratic processes, ensuring that all segments of society have not just the right but also the practical means to participate. While the essence of democracy extends far beyond the casting of votes, the act of voting is a fundamental expression of democratic principles. The nation's deliberate emphasis on inclusivity is evident in its accommodation of diverse groups such as the diaspora, those requiring special voting arrangements, and prisoners, thereby upholding and revitalizing the fundamental tenets of participatory democracy. Within the Southern African Development Community (SADC), South Africa stands out for its progressive electoral policies aimed at inclusivity.

Extending the Ballot: South Africa’s Commitment to Diaspora Voting

South Africa's approach to inclusive democracy is evident in its provisions for diaspora voting, which stands as a testament to its commitment to ensuring that every citizen has the opportunity to participate in the electoral process, regardless of their location. In the 2024 elections, over 76,000 South Africans living abroad were allowed to vote preceding the national election day, a practice not widely adopted across Africa. In the SADC region, countries such as Lesotho and Zimbabwe have not allowed their citizens living in the diaspora to exercise their right to vote outside their borders.

The ability of the diaspora to participate in elections is a pivotal element of democracy, ensuring that citizenship rights extend beyond physical borders. South Africa’s approach serves as a benchmark within the SADC for broadening democratic engagement. This inclusive approach has maintained a robust democratic dialogue between the South African government and its global citizenry.

The logistics of implementing diaspora voting are complex and require significant coordination with embassies and consulates around the world. Mersiha Gadzo and Edna Mohamed of Al Jazeera highlighted how this not only allowed South Africans living in various parts of the world to participate in key national decision-making processes but also fostered a sense of inclusivity and representation among the diaspora. This contrasts sharply with practices in many African countries—restricting voting rights to physical presence within the country—offering a model of inclusivity that other nations could follow. The success seen in South Africa underscores the potential for diaspora voting to enhance democratic engagement and maintain a vibrant political community, regardless of geographical distances.

Ensuring Inclusivity through Special Voting

South Africa's electoral system incorporates a notable feature known as ‘special voting’, which is designed to ensure that all eligible voters have the opportunity to participate in elections, regardless of personal circumstances that might prevent them from reaching the polls on official election day. This provision is a significant step towards making the electoral process more inclusive and accessible. The Electoral Commission of South Africa established that special voting takes place two days before the main election day. It is specifically arranged for those who anticipate being unable to vote on election day due to various reasons such as work commitments, health issues, or other personal constraints. This arrangement cuts across different classes, enabling a broader swath of the population to exercise their democratic rights without being hindered by their professional or personal circumstance.

The objective of special voting is to accommodate individuals who would otherwise be disenfranchised by the scheduling of election day. This includes workers in essential services, the elderly, pregnant women, and the physically impaired, among others. The process involves either a mail-in ballot or early in-person voting at designated polling stations. The implementation of special voting in the 2024 elections was notably successful. Reports from the SA News highlighted that special voting days were well organized and facilitated efficiently, allowing a significant number of voters to participate without the hassle of long queues. This was crucial in managing the voter turnout more effectively and alleviating the logistical pressures often experienced on the actual election day. The SA News coverage also emphasized the widespread approval and positive reception from the public regarding the special voting process.

Upholding Voting Rights in Prisons

In the 2024 elections, South Africa reaffirmed its commitment to inclusive democracy by allowing prisoners the right to vote. This initiative is rooted in the belief that civic rights should not be wholly stripped away due to incarceration and encompasses not only pre-trial detainees but also those serving sentences for lesser offenses. South Africa stands as one of the few African countries that actively facilitate voting rights for inmates, reflecting a broader commitment to rehabilitative justice and social inclusion. Correctional Services were prepared in advance, setting up polling stations within the facilities to ensure that all eligible inmates could participate in the electoral process. This preparation involved logistical arrangements to maintain order and security during the voting process, ensuring that it was conducted smoothly and without incident. The inclusion of inmates in the voting process is not merely about allowing them to cast ballots but is also an affirmation of their human rights. It is a recognition that while inmates may be deprived of their liberty, they still retain their civic rights and responsibilities.


South Africa's electoral process provides a robust model for the SADC region, demonstrating the substantial impact that inclusive practices can have on the vitality and legitimacy of democratic processes. By ensuring that every citizen, regardless of their personal circumstances or location, can actively participate in shaping the policies and practices that govern them. South Africa is championing a form of governance that is not only responsive but resilient. As the region moves forward, there is much to learn from South Africa’s democratic landscape, and arguably adopting similar measures could not only broaden participation but also deepen the democratic commitment of the region.

Bonolo Makgale is a Democracy Practitioner and Programme Manager of the Democracy and Civic Engagement Unit of the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. She writes in her personal capacity.


bottom of page