Lessons from South Africa’s Third Election:

Mammo MucheNetwork of Ethiopian Scholars (NES) 27 April 2009

It is a Power of Example to the Rest of Africa
Inspiring Quote! – “Every time history moves backwards or repeats itself, the price rises. Every time history moves forwards, hope and possibility for the future rise.” Anonymous

1. Introduction

Since 1994, South Africa underwent three national elections with remarkable success free from incidents that often mar elections in much of Africa. In spite of the fact that the country was under a peculiar form of racialist tyrannical rule before the coming to power of the democratically elected Government in 1994, it has managed to surprise the rest of the world by the way the citizens continue to express peacefully and with strong civic engagement and expression their democratic rights by going to the polls by standing for long hours in long lines with discipline and calm decency to express their voices, make choices and to cast their secret ballots to vote with record numbers.

On April 22, 2009, for the third time, they did it again! They expressed their voices. They made their choices. Finally they cast their ballot papers and voted after hearing spirited campaign debates, discussions and even heated exchanges that would lead in other places to diversionary cantankerous personalized quarrels including possibly leading to bouts of violence.

Back in 2004 I saw also the election in Durban whilst working at the University of Kwa Zulu Natal on a leave of absence from an English University in London. Then as it is now, the citizens went out with huge numbers and voted.

Again in 2009, I saw the long lines of the election in Tshwane in person. There were lines almost everywhere in the city. I talked to a few voters. When I asked whom are you going to vote for, most answered it is a secret ballot. A mother had a young child with her and I wondered if the child were going to vote too? The mother said let the child begin to learn how people vote too, and when his turn comes, it will be perhaps a routine matter to go and vote was her earnest reply. A 97 old woman, Jeminah Moshanyana also voted as the dignified frail African liberation hero Nelson Mandela did like an ordinary citizen with humility and pride at the same time. Former President Thabo Mbeki also voted with cheerful interest. Those who have led the country know even more the importance of acting in a way others see that they are very happy to be led also. The former leaders know also both to lead and be led and seem to enjoy when voting the role of being led!

The country continues to score the highest point perhaps in the world for continuing to come out in massive numbers to vote. It looks that the cynic index in South Africa will not apply to the South African democratic voter! In Switzerland every voting age person is legally obliged to vote. In South Africa, they vote without any legal compulsion. They vote from a deep commitment to express their citizenship rights and their civic engagement, believing their votes can make a difference. This is indeed a great achievement in itself whether the voted winning party delivers or not on its programmes and promises.

2. History Continues to Move Forward in South Africa!

It appears that in South Africa history is neither repeating itself nor moving backwards; on the contrary, history seems to move irreversibly forwards making the journey to the future exemplary, full of possibilities, optimistic, desirable and even fun. Curiosity is growing across the world how in South Africa such free, fair and peaceful elections with massive turnout and citizenship engagement continue to take place without rancor, violence and destabilizing quarrels. How is it that this country for the third consecutive time managed to achieve this level of democratic civilization and history without any recognizable reportable hitches and glitches in a country where the press is waiting hungrily to report any small incident that could have taken place even by accident? How come a country, which suffers from a hostile media blitz goes in such massive numbers to an election and manages to vote, express voice and choices without hardly any significant incident during the process or after?

One can only congratulate this important African nation for its demonstrated remarkable and exemplary achievements in showing the world that it has embarked on an irreversible democratic journey that will continue to endure in history and overcome the test of time and the hazards of any foreseen and unforeseen misfortune.

At least we must be proud that we have one African country that is a super example in managing democratic elections not only to Africa but also to the rest of the world!

South Africa is indeed good example for all of us Africans the world over. We must all try to learn with great humility what brought this great historic achievement to this land. Above all we must venture the risk to ask: can other African states learn from the power of the South Africa’s example of managing an amazing ‘incident and accident free election’ to the rest of the world, in an African context where it is still hugely difficult to pull off such free, fair and peaceful elections?

All the pundits were predicting this time the election would run into some trouble. But it did not. Whilst the reasons why the election succeeded requires deeper analyses, here we can only briefly highlight some of the tricky moments which could have marred the South African election process this time round more than the preceding two elections.

3. The Period of Doubt: the Split of the Congress of the People from the African National Congress

The democratic process in South Africa appeared to go through difficult times. There was a time it looked unlikely that the process could turn out to be very peaceful.

It looked after the split of some members of the African National Congress to form the Congress of the People (COPE) party, the media and some commentators try to spread the notion of an eminent violence, if the ANC’s share of the votes were to be reduced to sizes. The main story that was replayed time and time again was as follows: COPE’s strength was increasing at the expense of ANC and the latter would not tolerate its electoral power to shrink. The rhetoric of the ANC youth league leader and others were seized upon and the media ridicule increased escalating the notion that the election may not go as well as in the previous two successful elections. Violence was feared to take place or even expected. In some cases by some circles it was seen even perhaps as unavoidable.

As time goes by, it looked people who even criticize ANC still see it as Africa’s oldest liberation movement with plans to deliver better to the people on jobs, housing, health, education and public services than other parties including the new fraction from the ANC, COPE! The result is now obvious; the ANC has not alienated its base. Its support is still intact. It looks for a long time; it is likely to enjoy such support from the South African population, if it continues to deliver on jobs, education, health, housing, land reform and public services. And no violence ever occurred during the election as anticipated. The third South African election was as peaceful, disciplined, orderly and successful as the previous two.

The other extraordinary turn of events is the extreme vilification of the ANC leader, the current President elect Jacob Zuma. Even the foreign press got involved like the British Guardian in the defamation. Nothing and nobody was spared: undue focus on his personality, lack of formal education, his private life, his family, his friends and so on-, such and other charges became the media delights of their daily features and stories. The media became hysterical before and around the time of the split of COPE from the ANC.

It is remarkable how any individual can storm such attacks and carry on as if it is business as usual. Some opposition parties campaigned literally on what they call “Stop Zuma’ slogan using all these allegations and vilifications as data and story lines for their campaigns. They used skewed logic fallacy such as if Zuma is president of South Africa, the state as a whole in South Africa would become also ’criminal and corrupt.” It is like saying if the leaf is contaminated, the whole tree would be also, or if the tree is contaminated, the whole forest would be also. The logical fallacy of such reasoning is evident, but such a slogan did not bother those who fabricated them from continuing to fight using such fallacies, neither did the current president–elect nor the ANC bothered much about such claims against them by their opponents. This did not draw them from focusing from their own core message. In other parts of Africa, such a level of toleration is not likely to be found at all. It would have generated violence. In South Africa, it was seen as part of the occupational hazard of running a democratic election.

This is a country where there is a robust constitution, the rule of law, separation of powers, an active and free press; and in the ANC no individual seems to be above the ANC, demonstrated at Polokwane when the then seated president Thabo Mbeki was replaced by the current president elect Jacob Zuma. Even Bishop Tutu who said he would not vote if the current president elect is to be the next president reversed his stance in the end. Eventually the Bishop too voted. And the president elect will be the president of both the ANC and South Africa for the next five years whether one likes it or not.

After the election heat cools and the dust settles, we think, the South Africans will all work together because they appear to be creative, tolerant and above all see their country’s unity as priceless and the power of the example of their election and democracy to the rest of Africa too important to be soiled by other mundane concerns and personalized distractions.

All these political gyrations, tumultuous commotions, emotions, logical fallacies, insults and splits did not affect the way the election went finally in South Africa. That is what is extremely novel about South Africa’s election success! How come given such a charged campaign, that none of those involved did not flip and took action that could derail the election process? What can the rest of Africa learn from this remarkable process? What is the secret of this great success?

4. South Africa’s Election in Relation to Elections in other Parts of Africa,

Indeed in other parts of Africa, it is hard to imagine such a level of insult witnessed in the South African election to be tolerated without those who hold power or near power misusing or abusing their power to derail the election. What makes South Africa interesting is that it is not one of these states in Africa to be distracted and de-focused by the pettiness of electioneering petty rhetoric! They were able to ignore it or use it to educate the public instead of turning it into a fight amongst the parties.

It is fully demonstrated now no matter what is said, South Africa can manage elections despite or even because of the insults. It sounds counter-intuitive. But it is this capable collective management of a complex process in a complex society that strikes us as an extraordinary achievement. The election was not given to those who won on a silver platter. It was hard fought for. The winner earned the victory. It was not given to it! The process was free, fair and just. The losers have no complaints on the process. The winner has no grudges. As Africans we must feel proud that South Africa has attained this level of world class civilization. We must also feel enviable and wish that the rest of Africa should reach this level of achievement in the not too long distant future. We cannot afford to be thin-skinned and turn violent because the opposition criticism however unfair it is. Oppositions are not enemies. Ruling parties are not enemies. They are opponents with different programmes. They both want to win badly. In the process of the election they can use many tactics which may not be ethical. As long as the right to reply is not denied, there is no reason to turn this into a violent engagement. From South Africa, the rest of Africa can learn this important lesson. The sooner, the better for Africa’s democratic and united future.

5. Lessons from South Africa to Ethiopia and the Rest of Africa

Nearly all the pettiness and below the belt attacks that often trigger violence in other elections in other parts of Africa such as, for example, in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia et al also took place in South Africa. But remarkably South Africa’s election did not degenerate into violence. Other countries wishing to undergo elections in Africa must learn from South Africa with humility. What is it is that made the South Africans prevent violence when it looked violence would likely come, where if, indeed, it were in other African countries, we could not be celebrating for sure as the South Africans are doing as a people and nation, proud that they came through with flying colors in this election?

For example Ethiopia is due to have an election in 2010. It is important that both the incumbent parties and the opposition learn and even invite South Africans to help even out tricky moments in the election process. After all for us Ethiopians the success of South Africa is like our own success. That is how we must feel, think, act and behave coherently about the South African achievement. Hopefully South Africans would also share the same sentiment that success in elections in other parts of Africa is also their own success. They too must feel, think, behave and act coherently to get Africa moving forwards and not backwards not knowing how to manage elections after half a century of colonial freedom. All communities in South Africa should share success in the rest of Africa is also South Africa’s success. Democracy in South Africa is to be celebrated, but to sustain itself the rest of Africa must also be democratic or turn into the grand African democracy area!

If South Africa can do it so well after half a generation of post-apartheid colonial freedom, how is it that much of Africa cannot do it after half a century of colonial freedom? Even surprising, how come Ethiopia, the oldest historical country that still holds the African historical liberation imagination in the forefront against colonialism from the 15th century to the 20th century is still unable to run free and fair elections where the results are uncontested? Is history going to repeat the 2005 elections in 2010 in Ethiopia?

In Ethiopia too, if the country succeeds to run like South Africa free and fair elections, history will move forward with hope and possibilities for the future of the country and Africa as a whole. If Ethiopia fails to run and manage a free and fair election, history will repeat itself or move backwards exacting high prices and costs on the future of the people the country and wider Africa indeed.

If 2010 is going to be like 2005 in Ethiopia, It means the country once again would be confronted with an election aftermath of death and tears. If the election is not managed before hand, and there is still more than a year to get it right, all efforts from all concerned must be deployed to make sure that such a 2005 outcome must never be repeated in the 2010 election. The cost of a repeat of the 2005 election in 2010 is just too much to bear thinking about. History must not repeat itself. It must move forwards with hope and possibility for a bright future for all.

On the one hand, all efforts must be made for citizens to express their citizenship rights, on the other, all the tricks from the ruling party to create a climate for citizen disengagement through spreading fear, arrests, tricks , blackmails and intimidations must be opposed. If the latter prevails over the former, Ethiopian citizens are probably unlikely to vote. They will disengage from civic expression and involvement. That is the worst thing that can happen to any society, where citizens withdraw and find politics dirty, a lie and a lethal killer and not a help. A ruling party that drives its citizens to withdraw from the public sphere is indeed doing a historic disservice to society, people, nation and Africa. De-citizen-zing society by spreading fear, threats, arresting the opposition leaders on clumsy reasons such as having given an inaccurate interview to an Ethiopian-Swedish Diaspora radio as happened to w/t Birtuken, creating too many unjust regulatory hurdles, using secret services, police and other forms of discouragement is likely to create long term cost to society in Ethiopia and indeed wider Africa. The price of a democratic defeat is incalculable for Ethiopia.

Even worse, both regime and opposition must desist from using the ethnic card, using the politics of blackmail, using the tactic of inferior-sing some communities, and superior-sing other communities, is likely to sow the seeds of long term mistrust and the prevention of social capital construction. Social capital cannot be built with ethnic and vernacular fragmentation. It is built with an Ethiopian-African integral citizenship expression and engagement in public life. The freedom of the citizen must not be subtracted. It must be consolidated by enjoying human rights, housing rights, jobs, education, health and public services. Integrated political, social, economic and cultural citizenship engagement in Ethiopia’s possibly emerging vibrant public life is much needed to get a society to unite together to undertake the hard problems of overcoming underdevelopment in Ethiopia and indeed wider Africa.

It is disingenuous to say the rate of economic growth is above 7 % and repeat this to justify closing the democratic space! It is also equally disingenuous to use the developmental state to deny free democratic expression. A developmental state can also be democratic. South Africa is again the example for combining developmental state with democracy. It provides a genuine example here also.

It is equally important to know economic growth is not economic development. Economic growth made by exporting a few commodities such as coffee, flowers, leather and constructing houses is not the same as changing the lives of the people by creating the springs of well being against ill-being that many of our people suffer from. It is solving the food, jobs (especially youth employment), education, health, water, housing and public services that matter very much above all else. It is not creating a rent seeking political elite that also has its hands in the economy. Democracy, the rule of law, the separation of powers, free press and association and not the fear of criticism but the encouragement of criticism, even if the criticism is sometimes unfair- is important to learn and embed as a culture and norm in the Ethiopian context. Here South Africa is a great example for Ethiopia to learn from as well.

What is extraordinary about South Africa is indeed the presence of the high citizenship engagement and the degree to which the political process encourages rather than discourages citizens to enjoy expressing their rights, their choices, their voices and their votes. One person has one vote regardless of what class, race, gender or religion the person comes from. This person enjoys exercising the franchise. There is one South African citizenship identity despite the existence of different identities such as languages, races, religions and so on.

Concluding Remark

It is hugely embarrassing to run elections in Africa and come out with violence and death as collateral damage to the very often rigged, unfair, unjust and un-free election. Any lesson that can be drawn from successful elections in Africa such as that we saw in South Africa must be promoted. Ways must be found to use such successes to replicate and create more successes in the rest of Africa.

When opposition and rulers cannot play the democratic game well, the latest formula on the block is the so called national unity coalitions in places like Kenya and Zimbabwe. This new development is a stop gap measure invented when those who enter the electoral game are unwilling to concede defeat or accept the victory of the opposition. It is a formula that puts opposition and ruling party who often loathe each other together. It is created because the players are not respecting the democracy they entered to play in the first place. They expected to win, when they lose, they find it difficult to concede. It may be useful to prevent bloodshed, but certainly will not help to govern a country and carry out both economic and social development without being embroiled with endless arguments through this contrived national unity regimes. The parties must learn losing is even more respectable sometimes than winning. This culture must be embedded in their values. They can prepare and always try to come back and they can return! They must not say, now or never!

We know that South Africa had to overcome intricate barriers and incredible odds to achieve this latest third election. The harder and more difficult the barriers it surmounted, in the process, the more this made the success even greater for South Africa in the eyes of the world. It is not a good argument to say that South Africa is different. The kind of difficulties the South Africans surmounted is even greater than what often exists as difficulties in other parts of Africa. What is different is the capability, maturity, the handling and the institutions that worked together to neutralize the difficulties and bring out in the end results that became a shining example to the rest of Africa indeed. That is what is different, not the scale of the problems, but in the difference in the maturity in dealing with the problems.

The rest of Africa must try to learn closely and humbly from South Africa how to manage an exemplary peaceful, orderly, disciplined, non-violent and optimistic election where the voters turn out with joy to express their citizenship engagement.

Finally, the ordinary people in Africa should never be underestimated. The African village is often poor and rural. It is often underestimated. But given the opportunity, the African villagers can choose intelligently and vote for the party that they know may address better their issues than other parties that do not. In South Africa rural voters are decisive in the election as in other parts of Africa. It is the village that combines human possibility, solidarity and community and managed to survive against all obstacles with the Ubuntu spirit.

The elites in Africa are mostly not a creative or democratic class. It is often self-seeking, not public service seeking. In fact it is rent-seeking elite. It priorities rent extraction over democratic and developmental achievement in Africa. Very often, it tries to commodify politics into private economic gain for oneself; ones own family, its friends and foreign friends. This rent-seeking behavior is buttressed strongly by the international aid system.

Countries like South Africa have much more independence than many other countries to this international aid system. There is thus creative elite in South Africa along with perhaps some rent-seekers. In the rest of Africa we have a serious problem of rent-seeking behavior overshadowing creative, venturesome, risk taking, innovative and entrepreneurial behavior by our elite. There is thus a need to work hard to change the rent seeking elite into creative, democratic, innovative, venturesome and developmental elite to establish democracy and unite Africa.

That work must be done by enlisting the ordinary people’s power, and by using as positive data the power of example best displayed by the great success from the third South African election! The rest of Africa must learn from South Africa! And South Africa should be prepared to share the secret of its extraordinary successes with the rest of Africa!

Mammo Muchie, Dphil
Professor, Coordinator of DIIPER
Research Centre on Development Innovation and IPER and
NRF/DST SARCHI chair holder, TUT, South Africa
Aalborg University
Fib. 2
9220-Aalborg East
Aalborg, Denmark
Tel.no. 00-45 9940 9813
fax.no. 00-45 9815 3298

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Posted by on April 27, 2009. Filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.