Opinion

An example to Africa, where elections are flawed - if not deadly

In many African countries, elections are a box-ticking exercise aimed at pleasing outside players - but in SA they capture the will of an uncowed, free people

19 May 2019 - 00:00 By DAVID MONYAE and EMMANUEL MATAMBO


SA's recent election has strengthened the country's good democratic reputation in Africa and, hopefully, beyond. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has cemented its reputation as a credible Chapter 9 institution. It is testament to the fact that SA's commitment to and exercise of democracy is faithfully practised.
Complaints about suspicions of double voting and rigging are marginal in the wider scheme of things and do not detract from the ultimate result of the election. African elections are notorious for being life-and-death affairs, and obsequious electoral agencies have been complicit in skewing the outcomes.
From its regrettable history as a colony and victim of apartheid, SA has managed to entrench the tenets of democracy seldom experienced on the African continent. Despite its internal challenges, the country is a pillar of electoral rectitude.
It is significant that SA's 2019 election came ahead of many more elections to be held in Africa this year. Malawians will be going to the polls on Tuesday. Hopefully, SA's conduct during the just-ended elections could be instructive for Malawi on how to conduct credible elections.
It is also noteworthy that the Commonwealth has asked former South African president Thabo Mbeki to lead an observer group to Malawi.
Observer missions are important in offering oversight during the usually volatile electoral period. But, like any other human innovation, observer missions are fallible. One of their crucial handicaps is that they usually monitor the political climate under which voting is done without taking into consideration the period that precedes an election.Voter misconduct on the day of elections is not the only potential blemish on the process.The case of Zimbabwe offers a textbook illustration of how election outcomes can be manipulated way before polling day. At the very first democratic election in Zimbabwe, in 1980, reports were rife about Zanu-PF preventing candidates from other parties from campaigning in Zanu-PF strongholds. There were also cases of violence against those who were opposed to Zanu-PF.That trend continued and, even though election days may be relatively stable, those coming to the polling stations are a cowed citizenry whose choice at the polls is influenced by fear.Under such circumstances, an election may be a good box-ticking exercise calculated to please outside players, but one whose result is totally alien to the real will of Africans. The frequency of elections is an encouraging sign for Africans, but it is not the only basis for democracy and good governance. Elections are ideal in instituting leaderships that are an estimation of the people's choice, but those leaderships have to be seen to be working for the good of Africans.The failure of elected "democracies" to surmount the problems that stalk Africa deserves a sober assessment of the motivations for African governments to have embraced this political framework in the first place.The implosion of the Soviet Union and the seeming victory of liberal democracy in the last decade of the 20th century created a quandary for Africa's ideological status. After colonialism, luminaries of African independence such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania had adopted socialist policies, partly because they wanted the wholesale obliteration of colonialism, of which capitalism was a crucial part. Understandably, a lot of left-leaning radicals force a connection between capitalism and oppression.Unfortunately for African citizens, their socialist leaders also adopted the political preferences of socialist powers that are hostile to multiparty democracy. Even more disappointing is the fact that socialism did not do much to improve the fortunes of newly liberated countries. Africans continued to rely on their erstwhile colonisers and this became more blatant with the end of the Cold War.The triumph of neoliberal democracy and market economics exposed just how susceptible Africa is to the tastes of its funders. While the socialist camp was in disarray, Western influence was on the ascent in the international system. African countries that for much of their independent existence had not known multiparty democracy were compelled to accept prescriptions from their Western donors. Structural adjustment programmes are usually cited as the embodiment of foisting Western ideas on an unwilling but desperately poor Africa.
It is to that era that Africa owes its electoral democracies. However, the mendacious manner in which elections are held exposes the fact that African leaders who adopted this framework did so out of compulsion and/or desperation. Evidence is legion on the continent of how elections have not been embraced, especially by leaders who do not enjoy the support of their citizens.They also do not help entrench democracy on a continent where voting along ethnic and tribal lines is common. The most ideal circumstance for democracy's success in Africa could be reconciling voters to ideas rather than identity sensibilities.The post-election violence of 2008 in Kenya is a ghastly example of how dangerous elections can be in Africa. On the other hand, the postponement of elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Nigeria showed just how unwilling or ill-prepared African governments can be to hold elections. The Nigerian case was particularly embarrassing for a country of its economic magnitude and political influence.It is thus heartening that SA has maintained its post-1994 reputation as a model for how elections should be held. By force of example, it is hoped that the rest of Africa will emulate SA and its peerless IEC.• Monyae is the director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg, and Matambo is a research fellow at the same centre

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