Electoral Reform: Representation - a conceptual analysis

The Helen Suzman Foundation is producing a series of briefs on electoral reform in South Africa. This brief, the fifth in our series, will provide a conceptual analysis of representation.


Representation can be thought of as the act of standing in place of, or the exercise of proxy on behalf of, another, or the advocacy of a set of preferred interests. A represented interest is separate to, and distinct from, the interests of the representative – even where the two may, in fact, align. When it comes to political representation, it is this distinction which is supposed to shield representatives from being both judge and party in the issues which they determine: those being the interests of the nation, the people, the voters. Essentially, the public interest.

James Madison was wary of sinister representatives who obtain the vote only to betray the interests of the electorate. So how do we define the line between the interests of the representative and the represented? Madison lauded the “happy combination” of a federal constitution as forcing negotiation and compromise among majority and minority group interests in a republican setting[1].

The South African Constitution is one which, through principles, values, and norms, embodies, by consensus, a national interest which transcends party, faction, and individual in favour of a collective democratic framework. Within this democratic agreement, we might have certain expectations of our political representatives, but what are these expectations based on? Before we can determine how we expect our representatives to represent, it would help to engage with our understanding of the concept of representation.

Conceptions of representation

The historical primer to thinking about the nature of the political representative was to consider first whether representatives should act as delegates or trustees[2]. A delegate represents the expressed preferences of their constituents while trustees are selected for their discretion to decide on the best course of action.

Madison, who espouses the delegate view of representation, saw having a large and diverse constituency as a way of mitigating the risk of the faction described earlier[3]. Conversely, Edmund Burke’s conception of trustee representation flows from the argument that representatives, once seconded to Parliament, sit as a “deliberative assembly” to represent the national interest, and not “different and hostile interests” – to this end, discretion is integral to the exercise of decision-making of the representative in Parliament.

Hanna Pitkin[4] and Jane Mansbridge[5] have pioneered important ways of understanding and interpreting forms of representation itself. Pitkin provides the following concepts[6]:

  • Formalistic representation is characterised by authorisation and accountability through sanction. Electoral replacement exists as an incentive for good performance (at least in theory) although there are no standards for assessing performance[7] – the only criteria for representation is whether the office is held legitimately. Importantly, the threat of no longer holding office is different to the question of whether someone represents/is considered a representative.
  • Symbolic representation concerns itself with the meaning of the representative to the represented constituency or cause. Struggle leaders in liberation movements or Greta Thunberg as a representative of global climate change activism are examples of symbolic representatives – where the ability to represent is contingent on the acceptance of the representative (and some instances, externally imposed.)
  • Descriptive representation’s central concern is the existence of common interests (usually found through the demographic grouping of the representative). The representative resembles or shares common experiences with the represented group.
  • Substantive representation can be identified by the alignment between the interests of the representative and those being represented – this form of representation can take the form of special interest groups, lobbyists or even from civil society.

Mansbridge extends these categories to consider four more forms of representation:

  • Promissory representation and Pitkin’s formalistic representation share commonalities in that they both emphasise consent of the constituency (electorate). The mode of accountability is prospective as representatives are evaluated based on the promises made during election campaigns[8].
  • By contrast, in anticipatory representation representatives act to please future voters in order to secure a seat at the next election[9].
  • Gyroscopic representation is premised on trustworthiness of the representative and implies trustee representation, The representative “looks within” to best determine how to act[10].
  • And finally, surrogate representation describes the scenario where constituent interests may exceed jurisdictional boundaries – in other words, where one lacks an “electoral relationship” with the representative[11].


The concepts outlined in this brief indicate that there are nuanced and contested ideas of political representation. Their purpose is to encourage reflection on how and where our representatives fit into, overlap, resemble or are distinct from the various ways of conceiving of legitimate political representation.

We can then start to narrow our legitimate and enforceable expectations of our political representatives and form a clearer idea of the value and meaning of our vote.

Kimera Chetty
Legal Researcher

[1] Madison, James. [1788] 1987. “Federalist No.10.” In The Federalist Papers, ed. Isaac Kramnick, New York: Penguin

[2] Burke advocated for trustees who represented the national interest (II The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 95-96 (1887) See also: Burke, Edmund. 1774 (1906). Speech to the electors of Bristol in The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke. Vol. II. New York: Oxford University Press.), while Madison preferred delegates (Federalist No.10, 44). For an interesting perspective on whether the distinction between trustee and delegate may collapse depending on the responsiveness to sanction and the type of authority granted by constituents to independent representatives see Andrew Rehfeld (2009). Representation Rethought: On Trustees, Delegates, and Gyroscopes in the Study of Political Representation and Democracy. American Political Science Review, 103(2), 214-230)

[3] Party faction is a different animal of course, especially within the South African context of the proportional representation without constituencies, where party protection is a bar to incentives to care about post-election citizen sentiment or expressed preferences.

[4]Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel, 1967. The Concept of Representation, Berkeley: University of California.

[5] Mansbridge, Jane. “Rethinking Representation.” The American Political Science Review, vol. 97, no. 4, 2003, pp. 515–528.

[7] While beyond the scope of this brief, in the South African context, it may also be helpful to consider the place of norms and conventions as performance incentives in the absence of such criteria.

[8] Promissory representation follows the traditional “principal-agent” relationship. Mansbridge offers that “when control is asymmetric, the problem for the principal is to make sure the agent acts to further the interests of the principal.”. Mansbridge argues that this form of representation comes closer than any other model to the ideal of the will of the voter being carried through via institution to impact final policy. Supra note 5, page 516

[9]Mansbridge explains that “whereas in promissory representation the representative at Time 2 (the period in office) represents the voter at Time 1 (the authorising election), in anticipatory representation the representative at Time 2 represents the voter at Time 3, the next election.” The inherent risk in the crystal ball gazing the representative engages in when determining the future preferences of voters is simply getting it wrong. There is, however, the ability of the representative to shift preferences of the voter at Time 3 through power and influence – Mansbridge acknowledges that this brings into question the norms of good deliberation. Supra note 5, page 517

[10] Here traditional political accountability is flipped – the representative is inwardly accountable to their own beliefs, conscience and principles instead of the electorate via sanction. Essentially, the representative is placed in a position to represent on the faith voters have in predicting that representative’s future behaviour, based on their past behaviour. In her 2014-2015 Arthur Allen Leff Fellowship Lecture at Yale Law School, Mansbridge cautioned that although this type of representative can boast a high degree of public trust, there is the risk that the representative is perceived as distant from the constituency they represent as there is less incentive to seek their consent or to represent their preferred interests – but that this can be remedied through innovation rather than replacement. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nq0hRTKKTIY

[11] Accountability in this construct functions differently according to the motivations for representation – perhaps money or contribution, or an allied sense of ideology or shared experience that imbues the representative with feelings of responsibility towards the surrogate constituent. This form of representation in the American electoral context affords enables constituents at risk of zero legislative representation on policy issues they’ve lost in their own district, to have “surrogate” representation in another district. Supra note 5, page 523