As I watched the results unfold at the Independent Electoral Commission’s results centre in Bellville South last week, I realised that the answer was “everything”.
Described by political analyst Prof Adam Habib as “world class”, he said in an interview that our local elections were a model of participatory democracy. Our 2011 municipal election set the bar at the highest notch, not just for Africa, but for the rest of the world.
Like so many commentators, Prof Habib measured the IEC as one of our most treasured national institutions.
He agreed that one of the hallmarks of our local electoral process was that nominated independent candidates only had to submit a list of 50 signatures, and to pay a small deposit. This meant that they would not be overly disadvantaged against the more muscular parties, such as the DA or the ANC.
Of course, most of us will concur that the playing fields in politics will never be perfectly level, but a fighting chance is – well – a fighting chance. Voters in some wards were spoilt with a selection of more than 20 candidates, something unimaginable in a big democracy such as the US.
For me, Election Day in South Africa means that I get to see the smiling face of my nation; the same one that graced the 2010 World Cup and created the “gees” that enchanted so many millions of people.
However, as South Africans self-absorbed in our daily struggles, we do otherwise tend to be hugely self-critical too. Hence the paradox that the ANC – still with a whopping 62% majority – will beat itself up about the results, and possibly even depose the President in a year’s time.
In South Africa this dynamic of public self-introspection is more profoundly noticed, because when elections do occur in other parts of the developing world, they have a poor record. When stuffed ballots, bribery and corruption are the bane of the honest voter there is only room for anger.
It is no wonder that the electoral process can often become overwrought, leading to frustration and even bloody violence. This year’s Nigerian presidential ballot, only considered “free and fair” by Nigerian standards, resulted in 800 deaths.
The stand-off in Cote d’Ivoire between former President Laurent Bgabgo, and Alassane Outtara, is as a sharp lesson for Africa as the Middle East is – where its tinpot dictators, unchecked for decades, cannot comprehend that their time is up.
Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni – entrenching himself as President for life – was recently re-elected against a background of discontent. And if Robert Mugabe – already President for life – goes to the polls any time soon, it’s guaranteed that his Zanu-PF thugs will beat up opposition voters.
Contrast this against South Africa (three Presidents since 1994) and another shining, but forgotten example, Somaliland (two successful democratic elections) and the picture is clear: those aspiring for a genuine political voice on our continent will obviously look to its best examples.
Whilst Somaliland (a breakaway territory of colonial Somalia) battles for international recognition on the Horn of Africa, South Africa’s positives are the envy of the continent. We are the only African welfare state, and our ARV roll-out for Aids sufferers is probably the most extensive in the world.
And whilst basic service delivery for the poor is a burning question, it can’t be denied that millions of houses have been built, electrified and supplied with running water. Yes, it’s not perfect (and our Gini-Co-efficient ranking is a disgrace) but if you’ve been living for 50 years in a post-colonial slum in central Africa, our post-apartheid era doesn’t look too bad.
In fact, my own experience is that right across the African and Arab world, the victory of the anti-apartheid movement – and the iconic status of Nelson Mandela – have been beacons that have lit up people’s hopes, and in difficult times, bolstered their courage.
For the international community, “Madiba Magic” is not about us winning the World Cup, but rather the values of honest political struggle, personal sacrifice and national reconciliation. And even in 2011 people haven’t forgotten this – as I was reminded by a Khartoum-based journalist just last week.
But where we have the most impact is through our imagery. As much as freedom in Egypt will now be about Al-Jazeera’s depiction of Tahrir Square, South African elections have been about the wire-service queue pictures – wide-angle shots of shadowed lines snaking around shacks.
It has become a cliché; but this imagery is still figuratively powerful. It’s powerful not because the poor are seen to be voting, but because our polling stations are not guarded by tanks, armoured cars and guns. Troops do not patrol barbed-wire perimeters, combat rifles at the ready.
The normality of it all is, ironically, abnormal for the many countries who watch us on their television screens via satellite.
But let it be said: with all the good cheer about South Africa, there is a stern caveat. Voters have expectations, and South African voters now have high ones. Politicians will have to stand and deliver against an uncertain climate of global economics, and a highly limited tax base.
The only answer to this is jobs, jobs, jobs and more jobs – not created by government (which doesn’t have the capacity) but by the ingenuity of South Africans themselves.
Finally, the Malema’s of this world need to understand very quickly that their foul-mouthed identity politics merely nurtures a culture of entitlement; a culture of entitlement every bit as repulsive as that of the Afrikaner Nationalists who held this country to ransom for 46 years.
They need to realise that in a true democracy, the majority can only be defined by principle, and never by race.