Could South Africa elect an independent president like Senegal’s Bassirou Faye?

28 March 2024

In Africa’s ‘year of elections’ – in which more than a third of the continent is scheduled to head to the polls – the Republic of Senegal has delivered the first widely positive and celebrated results. On the 25th of March, the country elected its youngest president to date. Bassirou Diomaye Faye, born in 1980, obtained 54% of the vote on his 44th birthday. With no run-off election required, he will be sworn in to the presidency on the 2nd of April. The incumbent, President Macky Sall, has congratulated Faye and the Senegalese people and pledged his cooperation in the transfer of power.

Senegal’s president-elect Bassirou Faye. Wikemedia Commons.

Faye’s journey is one for the history books. In addition to his youth, his victory is all the more impressive when we consider that this is his first electoral contest and, moreover, that he was running as an independent. His party — African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity (PASTEF) — was barred from participating in the 2024 election and he therefore ran as an independent.

South Africa is holding its own general elections on the 29th of May and will be having independents on the ballot for the first time. Following the Independent Electoral Commission’s released lists on the 27th of March, we know that there are 16 candidates without a political party affiliation.

In light of this, could the country see an independent candidate emerge as president as well? The short answer is no, but the reason(s) why are still interesting and worth briefly reviewing.

The main reason is the difference in the two country’s electoral systems. While Senegal has a presidential electoral system, South Africa has a parliamentary system. This means that while Faye ran for president, the South African candidates will be running to be elected into parliament, which will in turn elect a president. In section 86, the country’s 1996 constitution provides the following process for the election of a president:

(1) At its first sitting after its election, and whenever necessary to fill a vacancy, the
National Assembly must elect a woman or a man from among its members to be the
(2) The Chief Justice must preside over the election of the President, or designate
another judge to do so. The procedure set out in Part A of Schedule 3 applies to the
election of the President.
(3) An election to fill a vacancy in the office of President must be held at a time and on
a date determined by the Chief Justice, but not more than 30 days after the vacancy

Given South Africa’s party-based political system, the following would have to ensue for an independent to be elected as president:

  • An independent candidate would have to be elected into parliament;
  • There would have to be no single party with a large enough majority to nominate and elect a president;
  • There would have to be no agreement among the parties about which whose candidate should be nominated for president; and
  • A large enough group of parties or parliamentarians would have to agree on a single independent candidate to be nominated and elected president.

The independent candidate would then have the difficult task of forming a cabinet. Given that they would have no long list of parliamentarians readily available to them, it would be extremely challenging for them to do what the Constitution requires in section 91(1) in that they (as President):

(a) must select the Deputy President from among the members of the National Assembly;
(b) may select any number of Ministers from among the members of the Assembly; and
(c) may select no more than two Ministers from outside the Assembly.

Clearly the odds are heavily against an independent emerging as president. Were they to do so, they would also live under constant threat of a no-confidence vote due to having no reliable MPs of their own.

But an independent minister?

In the event that there is a coalition situation, we can nonetheless expect the possibility of at least one independent parliamentarian being appointed as a minister in order to provide votes for the ruling party or ruling coalition.