The South African Elections

An Observer Reflects
Sanjoy Hazarika of CHRI in South Africa an an Election Observer

As a part of an International Election Observers Group to South Africa to review the general elections there on May 8, organized by the Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF), I found the detailed briefings, workshops and discussions about the nature of the South African polls, the constitutional aspects as well as historical narratives both interesting and a significant learning experience. 

There were 19 observers representing more than 15 countries including Denmark, Germany, South Africa, Kenya, Myanmar, India, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Zimbabwe, Finland and Lebanon, including politicians, civil society, professionals and media as well as FNF staff members.

Our interactions with experts in South African history, the crackling tension and challenges inherited from previous apartheid regimes and the problems of race relations, development, corruption and inter-factional disputes facing current governments as well as the larger social landscape was enormously helpful in understanding a complex nation. The focused workshops on what to look out for in terms of voter intimidation, representation and the roles of the electoral officers as well as those of observers were well-defined and intense.

While we were largely in the commercial capital of Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, the team also visited Pretoria, the political capital, for well-organized meetings, dialogues and visits with leaders and members of Parliament from the liberal party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). There was a visit to Parliament House where we paid our respects to the statue of Nelson Mandela, the icon of democratic values, peaceful resistance and harbinger of change to his country. A meeting with European Union diplomats also helped place other perspectives on the table, including the question of the representativeness of liberal and other parties opposed to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and perhaps the need for them to change their narrative and focus on issues while reaching out to the public.

The voting, we learned was not just for the national parliament but also to state legislatures and voting was not by candidates but for the party. The parties had a list of candidates of their own for the seats and whichever candidates was at the top of the list – whether by mobilization or influence or whatever – would be picked for the respective legislatures. 

What was also new for me was that apart from postal ballots there was a day set aside (from the big day of the general vote) to enable voting by people who were physically or otherwise challenged and could not stand in long queues, for police and military officials as well as those in emergency services such as doctors and nurses. This is a good practice that countries such as India and other nations could well emulate and could be brought to the attention of the Election Commission of India.

Our visits included a trip to DA’s buzzing headquarters and the ‘war room’ packed with busy volunteers analyzing, reviewing and discussing campaign strategy, trends and challenges. The run-up to the day of balloting included  a long day of watching enthusiastic rallies, energetic campaigns, a rising political star of the DA and a future Presidential hopeful. This was in the township of Soweto, which leaped to international fame, because of the public agitations and riots against apartheid decades back in a space once-characterized by unemployment, crime and poverty.

It is also the place where Nelson Mandela’s home is now a national memorial that draws thousands of visitors.

I was particularly surprised by the overall quality and dignity of electioneering where rivals were not abused and the focus remained on key issues such as corruption and unemployment, safety of women, rising crime and deaths of young men as well as the failing economy.  In one rally, the slogan was “Don’t send them to parliament, send them to prison”, a blast directed at the ruling party whose previous President and his business cronies had amassed huge wealth by looting the exchequer.  But the former president, given the dynamics of South African politics, remains a major player in the ANC despite the publicly stated determination by the man who succeeded him and who has become President again, Cyril Ramphosa, to pursue the corruption cases relentlessly.

The singing and dancing on the streets by political campaigners and marchers was energetic, infectious and brilliant. When rival political groups passed each other on the streets, they often sang out to each other and moved on. There was little bitter confrontation that one is so familiar with in South Asia, not just India although social media was certainly active with fair words and foul!

A highlight for me was the visit to Soweto and museum commemorating martyrs and fighters against apartheid, especially young school children who took on a racist state, its bullets and brutal police. The photo of a tall young man carrying a dead boy in his arms after being shot by police with the child's sister running alongside electrified the world and brought the abuse of racism into focus. I was very moved by the visit and also to see the changes in Soweto where affluent homes rub shoulders with poor neighborhoods.  The power in remembered history is evident -- I saw a white woman coming out of the museum in tears, as her family was silent and pensive.

We also attended a public discussion at the Max Muller centre on the issues before the general elections between editors, a representative of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists and the German Ambassador.

On the day of the actual voting, we moved at 5 am before dawn to selected sites where we introduced ourselves to the voting officers and their colleagues and were allowed to observe and walk around the space for the process. We reached before  the polls actually opened to voters and were able to see the division of responsibilities and explanations by officers to their teams. The voting centres were largely in schools of different quality – the ones in the affluent parts of town were well maintained with a majority of white persons queueing up; those in the townships were gritty and reflected the poverty around. Some voting centres were also in town halls and in tents off the street.

On the streets outside voting centres in the townships, garbage heaps were piled up, the streets were uneven. And the mood of voters ranged between enthusiasm and curiosity to silent resentment. But we saw no evidence ether of vote tampering or intimidation, and the crowds sere orderly, having lined up patiently from 4 am.

Under the leadership of Jules Maaten, FNF’s Regional Director for sub-Saharan Africa, we criss-crossed Johannesburg, heading also to the townships on the outskirts.  What was also interesting was the polling centres start early but close only at 9 pm and anyone who is kin the queue at the time must be allowed to call her/his vote. This means that technically if there’s a long queue, the polling can continue till after midnight i.e. into the next day but would be counted as of the actual day of voting!

We were also impressed that in several townships, the polling officers had arranged for benches and chairs for the elderly and others who could not stand for long.  Polling agents of rival parties often sat next to each other inside the centres, watching the action and the queues, but chatting in a friendly manner throughout.

I was pleasantly surprised to meet with Executive Mayor of Johannesburg Herman Mashaba, who came without security and was prepared to talk to voters, strangers, crowds, rival party workers and his own!  It was a lesson in how to conduct politics and public relations by a powerful party figure who runs the city with the collaboration of the rival party. Mashaba is clearly well liked and was flanked by smiling rival party workers who seemed to adore him. Unlike in India or other countries of South Asia, where political figures can’t turn up without a flock of supporters and hangers-on, the mayor came without fanfare and security.

We returned to a tough neighborhood for the closing of elections but it was quite quiet at 9 pm when the last voters trickled in. Quite a day and quite a humbling experience.

While the elections were a boost to democratic processes in South Africa and upheld traditions set by the first free poll of 1992 which elected Nelson Mandela as President, there were a few issues that we felt needed to be addressed. This was set out in the FNF’s initial press statement:

“We found several challenges, such as issues with the sealing of ballot boxes, the use of forms for voters voting outside their designated voting stations, which sometimes led to chaotic situations and polling stations running out of ballots, and with the positioning of voting booths, which did not always guarantee a secret vote. These need to be addressed in future. However, we found no suggestion of deliberate tampering. The voting process, in so far as our delegates were able to observe it, was well organised and orderly, and the elections were free and fair.”

Before returning to our respective capitals, some of us also attended a meeting and press conference organized by senior observers from the African Union which came up with similar observations as those made by our own teams – a free and fair election on the whole.

The FNF Regional Office in Johannesburg deserves our deep appreciation for its highly professional, sensitive and warm organization of our visit, leaving no stone unturned to enable our understanding of a complex land and its peoples, participation, safety and comfort at all times. I would like to all colleagues from FNF who made this visit such a memorable, enriching experience. CHRI would like to expand its partnership with FNF across the oceans to work collaboratively on areas of common interest. 

Sanjoy Hazarika Director of CHRI partner of FNF South Asia in New Delhi

Sanjoy Hazarika

Sanjoy Hazarika, is a human rights activist recognised internationally for designing and developing innovative strategies for inclusive health and governance who is also a scholar, author, journalist and film maker, and the International Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) in New Delhi. In this commentary he shares his personal views.