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Why African countries can learn from South Africa’s elections

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By Ibrahim Kangwa Chibwe

Its been 25 years since South Africa’s transition to an inclusive society. In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected as the first democratic president of South Africa. The ANC’s victory sent a signal to the world that democracy was born in South Africa.
Since then, the country has conducted six elections where the government is elected on a five-year term. The recent one was on May 8, 2019. Already, the country has proved to the entire world that despite its violent past, the rule of law and respect for the country’s legal institutions remains key to the country’s total transformation.

Elections are generally very toxic and often violent exercise on the African continent. Since the dawn of democracy on the continent in the early 90’s, several countries have held elections, which at times have been very violent and deadly.

A quick breakdown on African elections points to that picture:
In 2007, Kenya experienced the worst post-election violence ever, with over 1500 people killed following election dispute. The media too was not spared as several journalists were arrested in what the government said was un fare coverage and fomenting hatred. Fast forward to 2017 elections, issues of vote rigging, fraud and intimidation led the Kenyan chief Justice to annul the outcome of that election. That led to a re-run which was boycotted by the main opposition party. Uhuru Kenyatta was subsequently declared winner following that re-run.

Elsewhere, Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria held its election at the end of the year. Before the vote, the country’s Chief Justice was fired by the president, a clear violation of the constitution as only parliament has the mandate to dismiss the chief justice. The general sentiment in the public was that he was fired because the president did not want him to preside over the elections. Those elections were marred by fraud and malpractice.

In Zambia, though the country enjoys some relative peace, elections have always been violent and intolerant. Often opposition parties are at the wrath of police intimidation. During the 2016 election, leader of the biggest opposition was sent to jail for obstructing a presidential motorcade. He was charged for treason, a felony that warrants a life sentence. He was released following pressure from the international community.

Recently, after the fall of Zimbabwe’s longtime ruler Robert Mugabe, the country went to the polls. Lauded as one of the most important elections in the country, it turned out to be one of the most violent in the history of the country. Soldiers were deployed on the streets of the capital Harare and six people were killed in the mayhem. A commission of inquiry was constituted and its outcome was severely criticised. The opposition had earlier threated a boycott, citing fraud and vote rigging.

So what are the lessons other African countries can learn from South Africa?

Despite the country’s violent past and the racial divisions that still exist, the country has allowed the institutions responsible for the management of elections to work autonomously without the government’s interference. Prior to elections, all political parties were accorded the space they needed to conduct free and fair campaigns. And one of the most cardinal aspects to this election was access to information and respect to media freedoms.

The media was allowed to do its work without fear and favour, a very important aspect in every thriving democracy. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), an institution mandated to conduct and oversee the elections process, had allowed the flow of information both before and after the elections. Although the country’s electoral process differs from other countries across the continent, other nations still have a lot to learn from South Africa on how it manages its elections.

Elections have always been a battleground for ideas and ideologies and South Africa is not immune to this. There have been some very violent service delivery protests across the country days before the elections and a number of the so-called political assassinations, but elections have been credible and well run. It is for these reasons that most African countries can take a cue from South Africa and begin to conduct their elections in a more tolerant, peaceful, non-violent and transparent manner.

Views expressed in this article are that of the author and not necessarily that of VOC.

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