South Africa elections are a litmus test of democracy in Africa

By Published On: 9th May 2019

The election season in South Africa has finally reached fever pitch. And from the onset, it is important to observe that this plebiscite takes place in the year the country is celebrating her silver jubilee of Freedom Day that ushered in a new democratic dispensation.

2019 is also unique on the election calendar of the African continent since elections are scheduled in at least 23 other countries, six of them in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) where South Africa is the powerhouse, both politically and economically. So in this “African election year” this election is as important at home as much as it is to the whole continent.

As a leading country in both SADC and among African Union members, it is almost obviously expected that the way elections are conducted will be in line with the Constitution of South Africa, while it congruently injects life and relevance to both the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections that was adopted in 2015, and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance earlier adopted in 2007.

All these instruments, mechanisms and guidelines have one common denominator – a call for “free, fair and credible elections”. This does not seem much to ask for, and South Africa has delivered these before, with near distinctions. Yet a quick view of how elections have been held in SADC and the rest of the continent makes a mockery of the exercise itself.

Only over a week before the elections in South Africa, the small West African state Benin held an “election” without opposition political parties which were effectively barred by new tough eligibility laws. The country of 12 million citizens has more than 250 political parties. As if that was not enough, internet was also shut down for the duration of the election period! But what would be expected from tiny Benin when neighbouring big brother Nigeria, whose recent election in February was unsurprisingly such a farce that they were postponed (by another week) only a few hours before polling booths were scheduled to open, prompting the rumour mill to go into overdrive with allegations that numbers were being “cooked”?

Africa’s election year also started with the release of the results of presidential elections held in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in December 2018 – itself an exercise of political skulduggery that may win an Oscar award, and whose outcome will be contested beyond even their next election season.

Closer to home and across Limpopo river, neighbouring Zimbabwe is yet to master the art of electioneering that passes the credibility test. As in many other countries across Africa, election means war, where opponents may end up either in jail or in the cemetery. One may even win an election but still lose the result! Yet in South Africa elections are still quite fun and dramatic such that recently leaders of political parties in the Western Cape Province even held a cooking competition.

SA still gets it right

Even though the recent Afrobarometer survey findings show that trust in most government institutions in South Africa has considerably declined, including that of the Electoral Commission (IEC) that runs elections, some indicators show that the country still gets it right. The country has catered for her citizens living abroad who used Freedom Day to cast their ballot at various embassies across the globe so that no one is disenfranchised. This is an important lesson to many countries including Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe whose diaspora citizens are as many as to possibly sway any national election but are repeatedly disenfranchised.

Other key institutions that matter in an election have also contributed to a peaceful and positive pre-election period in South Africa. The judiciary is still respected, and on several occasions political parties have had to resort to the courts to settle inter and intra-party disputes.

Unlike in many countries across Africa, the security sector, particularly the army, does not seem to be meddling in the election affairs at all. They have remained in their barracks, something unusual in many countries especially in the days leading up to a national election.

The media is visibly playing its role, particularly the public broadcaster that has made serious efforts to remain “independent and impartial,” and has been innovative to bring about live debates of many political party representatives at provincial level, though they are unlikely to have a size-up of the presidential candidates themselves. Above all, what has made the election season relatively smooth so far is adherence to the dictates of the country’s Constitution; it being the most important guide in any democracy.

Dispiritedness cause for concern

But the county has challenges still. The total number of unregistered potential voters, especially among the youths, is astonishingly high at almost 6 million. This dispiritedness in a country where key issues of unemployment, inequality and poverty that hit the youths hardest, and in an election where the emotive issue of land takes centre-stage is cause for serious concern. Added to this is the issue of racism that continues to hog the limelight, while recent incidences of xenophobic violence send shivers even among members of the international observer teams from the rest of Africa.

Be that as it may, South Africa needs to run its elections professionally, not only for the good of democracy at home, but for the rest of Africa. Having recently taken up a new two-year term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the country should assume its rightful place as a leader in deepening democracy and human rights which are receding in Africa and globally. This year’s election is that litmus test. Let the voters speak!

Dr Webster Zambara is senior project leader of peacebuilding interventions at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town.

Published on News24

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