The professionalism with which voters were treated throughout registration and polling, and all of the measures that delivered election results that are beyond dispute, is another feather in the country’s cap. While the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) gets a gold star, political parties and voters too collaborated to ensure that this important election on the African continent is an example of global best practice when it comes to elections.
With about a dozen polls planned for Africa this year, the peg has been raised, and other countries will need to show that they too can deliver free and fair elections and results that are beyond dispute. Next year all eyes will be on Zimbabwe’s next election and South Africa’s success will be fresh in the minds of observers of that process.
Several aspects stand out, including the firm way in which misconduct by electoral officials was dealt with, particularly in Kwazulu-Natal where rumours abounded after the 1994 election that significant electoral fraud had been committed. This time electoral officers were sacked and replaced on the spot and missing ballot papers recovered. ‘No go’ zones for political parties were also overtly dealt with, and although the odd area remained out of bounds for some, all the major parties seem keen to make this intolerance a thing of the past. Not unlike previous demo-cratic elections, the entire process was carefully audited, to ensure that the final results cannot be contested by losers and spoilers. Throughout, all political parties were seen as partners by the IEC – they were informed of developments in the run-up to the election and the presence of party agents through counting ensured a level of transparency essential if the results are to be respected. The IEC’s excellent website also made it possible for anyone to monitor detailed results as they came in, and analyse results right down to voting-station level. With the country’s election machinery now a well-oiled operation, there is space to turn to outstanding issues related to the deepening of democracy. One of these is ensuring that young people feel that they have enough stake in the future to come out in their numbers at election time. There was a sense in this election that many young people did not even register for inclusion on the voters’ roll. Political parties seemed not to speak to this constituency and education for first-time voters could be improved. It is also not too long before voters are asked to visit the polls again to vote for local councillors. The description of this year’s election as South Africa’s third democratic election ignores the fact that two democratic local elections have also been held, with another due late in 2005.
There has, though, been a real sense throughout this election that a more decisive focus on what is happening at municipal level is now required. With activists and politicians meeting with ordinary people it is apparent that a great deal more can be done to speed up delivery at local level. But with voter turnout traditionally lower in municipal elections, this will pose a challenge to parties, voters, the IEC and the media to ensure that issues of local delivery and governance receive the attention they deserve.