MILLIONS of South Africans went to polls this week in general elections as they marked 25 years of democracy since the demise of apartheid in 1994. While the political landscape has significantly shifted, lack of economic transformation and service delivery remain the biggest points of political contestation, together with the emotive land reform issue.
This outcome will, undoubtedly, impact South Africa — for better, or for worse. Apart from the campaigns and associated political histrionics, one of the issues to catch our attention was how the polls were run. In Zimbabwe, electoral management is usually as hotly contested as the polls themselves. Not so in South Africa. That is not to say there were no problems. Elections everywhere in the world, including in the most developed countries, often create controversy and disputes.
In South Africa, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), tasked with overseeing the entire electoral process, had its own shortcomings. From the ephemerality of indelible ink, which made it easily removable risking double or multiple voting, late opening of polling stations to shortages of ballot boxes; complaints lodged against the commission were many and varied.
However, IEC maintained its integrity and protected the credibility of the electoral process, hence the accepted outcome and stability.
The difference between elections in South Africa and some African countries, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Cameroon, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Nigeria, for instance, is transparency, integrity and credibility.
Many elections in Africa end up in controversy, conflict and bloodshed. Zimbabwe’s recent polls were blood-soaked.
Last year’s general elections culminated in the shooting of civilians in the streets of Harare in full view of the world. Yet in South Africa, from voting to vote counting, collation and verification all the way to announcement of results, the systems and processes are far more professional, transparent and credible. Political parties, their polling agents, election observers and media all have access to different stages of the electoral process and poll centres where the results are electronically tracked and displayed on dashboards as they come in at the IEC’s National Results Operation Centre. This ensures openness, fairness and acceptance of the outcome. Live broadcasts and open coverage by journalists make the process even more transparent.
In other countries, electoral systems and processes are opaque; sometimes run by security agents and cronies of the regime in power who often control everything — from voter education, voter registration and voting, all the way to vote counting and announcement of results. South Africa has done well to avoid such problems endemic to Zimbabwe.
Given problems related to its volatile socio-economic environment due to inequalities and conflict associated with service delivery protests, South Africa could easily plunge into chaos if it routinely rigs elections like Harare does.
Zimbabwe must learn from its neighbour and international best practice.