From 1948 to 1994, the National Party maintained dominance over South Africa's political system. The policy of apartheid, based on the separation of races, structured the political and economic life of the nation. After years of racial oppression and international condemnation, the opposition African National Congress (ANC) was legalized. Negotiations began with Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders for a transition to multiracial democracy in 1990.
Three thousand international observers monitored the first all-race election (in which the franchise was extended to South Africa's non-white majority) in May 1994. This historic election effectively ended apartheid and the National Party's dominance. Mandela's ANC obtained 63.1% of the popular vote and 252 seats in the National Assembly.
The current government is again led by the ANC, which solidified its hold over the National Assembly based on results of the June 1999 elections. Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki and the ANC increased their majority to 266 seats, just shy of the two-thirds majority needed to unilaterally amend the Constitution. The Democratic Party, a multiracial party, emerged as the opposition leader with 38 seats while the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), representing primarily Zulus in Kwazulu-Natal, slipped to 34 seats. The former National Party (NP), reconstituted as the New National Party (NNP), saw its electoral fortune decline to 28 seats from 82 in 1994.
The current Constitution went into effect in 1997 and maintains a federal system with significant powers reserved for the nine provincial governments. The president is elected by the National Assembly for a five-year term, not to exceed two terms. He is responsible for appointing the deputy president and cabinet, as well as leading his party in the passage of legislation. The president oversees the day-to-day operation of the government and distributes power and functions among the deputy president, ministers, and the deputy ministers. The president can call for new elections by dissolving Parliament if a majority of representatives seek its dissolution and at least three years have lapsed since the last election. The National Assembly, however, may pass a noconfidence resolution that excludes or includes the president. If the majority of the National Assembly votes "no confidence" in the government, the president must reconstitute his cabinet. In the event that the National Assembly passes a noconfidence resolution that includes the president, both the president and his government must resign. The National Assembly must select a replacement from within its ranks.
Parliament consists of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) and the National Assembly. The 400 members of the National Assembly are chosen by a proportional representation system through party lists for five-year terms. NCOP members consist of provincial officials chosen to reflect provincial parties' relative strengths. The National Assembly passes legislation, amends the Constitution, and oversees activities of the provinces in accordance with the Constitution. The NCOP passes legislation that pertains specifically to the provinces.