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Ballots, not bullets

It wasn’t guns and bullets that woke me from my writing slumber, it was the ballots cast peacefully across SA today, May 18, which made me jolt from my seat and announce myself once again on these pages. Dear reader, nothing makes me happier than a peaceful, free and fair election in Africa. This because of the continent’s past and recent bad performance in managing and conducting elections.

I woke up to an SA conducting its first competitive election since 1994. The DA’s campaigned aggressively to eat into the ANC strongholds by targeting black voters and much to my surprise appropriating ANC struggle stalwarts such as Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. The ANCification of the DA in the lead up to election day was particularly well-calculated by Helen Zille. It seemed to draw towards its ranks a number of black voters. This might backfire given the historical relations between black and white, the DA and the ANC among other binaries in SA. But this is not the issue here.

The real issue is that this election has gone by very smoothly with very few incidents worth complaining about. In the last elections there were isolated cases of violence, murder, fraud and some system inefficiencies. This time around we’re talking only of a burnt IEC tent in the Free State as a major incident. Even in historically, hotly-contested provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal — the IFP stronghold — there weren’t any incidents except scenes of queues and people in their regalia waiting patiently to cast their vote. If this was another African country — Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire or Nigeria, among others — there would be violence, fraud, vote buying and intimidation a year before and every day leading to election day.

But here is SA in 2011 showing Africa how mature it is, outlining the way. Many election observers said they were here “to learn how to conduct peaceful and fair elections and not to monitor them”. A Mexican observer said he had learnt something about the “special vote”.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has been central to the way electoral attitudes and behaviours have been formed. There were no major complaints against the IEC — something alien in other countries. This because the IEC has gained a lot of experience over the years and now commands credibility. This also due to its professionalism and neutrality in its conduct. This is important. It is in only SA that I have seen a brail ballot paper.

The credibility and conduct of the IEC cannot be praised without singling out three individuals. Three beautiful, experienced, qualified, passionate and dynamic women. IEC chairperson Dr Brigalia Hlophe Bam — a social worker and educator. The deputy chairperson, Thoko Mpumlwana — another educator and founding member of the IEC. Bam and Mpumlwana have a strong history in women’s issues and have both served on the South African Council of Churches. The chief electoral officer is another woman of international acclaim, advocate Pansy Tlakula, who is the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information for the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. Who else could better lead an institution mandated with safeguarding our freedoms and choices than a person who understands them and often puts her head on the block in their defence?

Democracy is indeed deepening in this country. No doubt there are many challenges such as inequality, race relations, crime and service delivery. But there’s been a concerted effort to strengthen institutions for democratic practice, adopt deliberative approaches to democracy and increase awareness of first and second-generation rights. This is a sign to whoever gets to govern the biggest number of municipalities that citizens are ready to publicly protest for their rights. It might be that the ANC will continue its hegemony but it’s been made clear that if it continues to not care about its voters it will slowly lose its dominance. SA’s been a shining light today. Let’s hope it increases its role in Bric as it takes Africa to the world — mainly to emerging economies — and the world to Africa. It can continue to lead also in consolidating the democratisation project, an agenda that has proved elusive in Africa and increasingly so across the world.


  • Bhekinkosi Moyo is trained in political science and currently shuttles between Southern Africa and West Africa. He works for TrustAfrica-a Pan African oriented foundation that works to secure the conditions for democratic governance and equitable development. In 2007, he edited a collection of chapters: Africa in Global Power Play. He has just completed editing an 18 country book on DisEnabling the Public Sphere: Civil Society Regulation in Africa.