Lessons for Zim as SA sets poll bar high

WHILE politics in South Africa and Zimbabwe has been in some respects similar because both countries are under the leadership of former liberation movements, despite different histories and internal dynamics, sharp variations emerged recently when South Africa demonstrated how relatively free, fair, peaceful and credible elections can be in contrast to how elections are run in Zimbabwe.

Elias Mambo

With over 18 million voters out of more than 50 million people casting their votes in 22 264 polling stations dotted around the country, South Africa demonstrated how smooth elections can be run without intimidation and violence.

Despite the violence that broke out resulting in one member of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Thapelo Lekana being shot dead and reports of ballot papers stored at officials’ houses and falling off trucks as well as tampering of ballot boxes emerging in the South African media, the South African Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) largely ran the elections smoothly.

IEC had created state-of-the-art well-equipped results operation centres (ROC) in every province and a national ROC centre where verified tallies were collated and announced as they trickled in per province.

This was in direct contrast to Zimbabwe whose results normally take long to be announced leaving people hanging in limbo. ROCs also installed a leader board where results as they filtered in were projected on a giant screen for everyone and anyone there to see.

Those not in South Africa were able to view the results on the internet leader board which was updated regularly with a 15 minute delay from real time.

The South Africa results posting and verification system is also something to be commended and emulated.

The system of sending results to the provincial ROC was based on the internet where the results slip was scanned and sent to the system then those manning the system would verify and post them on the leader board.

Anyone who was in the ROC and wanted to verify the results had access to the scanned copy.

Unlike their Zimbabwean counterparts, South Africans living outside their country also had an opportunity to vote.

They could register to vote at any South African Embassy, High Commission or Consulate-General from January 9 2014 to February 7 2014.South Africans living abroad who wished to vote had to notify the IEC of their intention to vote by March 12 2014.

The weekends of January 18–19 and January 25–26 were reserved for registration in order to accommodate voters who were unable to register during business hours.

Over 26 000 voters were registered to vote abroad by the time the election was held.

Approximately 27 000 South Africans registered to participate in the national election in the international voting phase, which took place at 116 international voting stations on April 30 2014.

Of significant importance was also the local special vote phase which catered for over 295 000 voters who are physically infirm, disabled or pregnant or were unable to vote at their voting station on May 7.

It was interesting to note that former president Thabo Mbeki cast a special vote on May 6 as he was attending a World Economic Forum meeting in Nigeria on May 7.

The special vote proceeded smoothly. This is, however, in contrast to the chaos that marred the special voting in Zimbabwe.

Special voting, which replaced postal ballots used in previous elections, allows security sector workers and other government workers, who would be on duty during the general elections, the chance to cast their ballots.

Hundreds of angry police officers smashed windows of a polling station in Mount Pleasant protesting at the slow pace of the special voting process as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) admitted bungling ahead of the July 31 polls.

Zec failed to provide ballot boxes and papers where only 80 000 police officers would cast their votes early resulting in the violence and chaos as the uniformed forces pushed their way into the polling stations in order to vote.

A South African-based analyst, Dewa Mavhinga, who is also chairperson at Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, said Zimbabwe has to learn from South Africa.

“If there is political will to move Zimbabwe from the culture of flawed and manipulated elections to credible, free and fair polls, then there are several lessons to be drawn from the just-ended South Africa elections where over 18,6 million votes were cast nationwide in a single day,” Mavhinga said.

“Zimbabwe’s estimated 5,6 million registered voters are a tiny fraction of the over 25,3 million registered voters in South Africa and yet the administration of South African elections was smooth with the voters roll being readily available to all political parties and voters well in advance of the election.”

Mavhinga also said key election management bodies in South Africa were largely independent and trusted leading to all 29 political parties accepting the results of the elections as free and fair.

“Zimbabwe’s major handicap is a highly politicised and partisan Zimbabwe Electoral Commission which is distrusted by the public,” Mavhinga said.

Local political commentator Rashweat Mukundu said South Africa’s IEC managed to run a smooth democratic election.

“Despite the problems with some ballot boxes, the South Africa election is managed by an independent body that strives to be accountable. There is a huge gap between the IEC and Zec in terms of accountability,” said Mukundu.

“While the IEC shows contrition in error, Zec is arrogant and disrespectful of citizens. IEC appears service-oriented while Zec appears to be doing us a favour.”

Mukundu also said the South African election was a civilian one because no military personnel were involved in the running of the polls unlike in Zimbabwe where the whole exercise was left in the hands of the military and secret security services.

Zimbabwe can also take a leaf from the South African voter registration exercise. On the weekends of November 9–10 2013 and February 8–9 2014 all voting stations in South Africa were opened for new voters to register and for those who moved residence to re-register in their new voting district.

Approximately 5,5 million people in total visited voting stations, including approximately 2,3 million new voters. This increased the number of registered voters to 25,3 million. This contradicts the chaos that took place during the intensive voter registration in Zimbabwe.

The exercise left out thousands of potential voters from the system as it emerged that most mobile registration teams were deployed without adequate equipment to carry out the exercise.

In other areas they were spending only two instead of 30 days in a ward.

In its preliminary report, the African Union Elections Observer Mission leader and former Ghanaian president John Kufuor said the AU mission was satisfied with the way IEC ran the elections.

“The elections held by South Africa sets the bar high for African peers,” said Kufuor, adding, “but we believe that all countries in Africa should respect their own constitutions while providing an environment for transparent and accountable elections.”