The 2024 Elections in South Africa: 30 Years of Post-Apartheid | Commentaries from the Forum 2000 Networks

June 20, 2024

During the recent general elections in South Africa, Roukaya Kasenally was part of a Short Term Observation (STO) mission led by His Excellency Goodluck Jonathan on behalf of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA). Kasenally shared her insights in an article originally published in a local newspaper.

For the majority of South Africans, since the first post-apartheid elections held in 1994 – the one held on May 29, 2024 was deemed as important. A number of citizens referred to it as a momentous event and this was visible in the long queues where voters waited patiently to cast their vote.  A lot of disillusionment concerning the lack of jobs, chronic breakdown in public services, and a highly fragmented and polarized political context constituted the backdrop to this election. This is most visible among the youth who constitute more than 60% of the population and where there is an unemployment rate of 47%. Many of them have not lived through the struggle against apartheid that their parents and elders faced. Their concerns are jobs, mobility, and security. I had the privilege to be part of a Short Term Observation (STO) mission led by His Excellency Goodluck Jonathan, the former president of Nigeria, on behalf of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA).

As a number of countries in Africa line up to hold elections in 2024, there are some interesting issues that I wish to shine a light on when it comes to the process and practice of an election. In fact, we are well aware that elections are never perfect but there should always be room and willingness for improvement.

Roukaya Kasenally

Roukaya Kasenally, Member of DSA, Democracy Scholar, Associate Professor, University of Mauritius

Inclusion, Fairness, and Representation

The above are increasingly the quintessential features of any election. However, it should not simply be seen in the intention but also in its practice. Over the years, South Africa has made tremendous strides in female political representation, be it through gender equality enshrined as a constitutional right, the Equality Act, and voluntary gender quotas in political parties. For the 2024 election (provincial, national, and national), 42% of the candidates were female. Gender visibility trickled down to electoral staff and party agents where the majority were women and often in positions of leadership, such as the presiding officer. In fact, this was one of the major features for which all observation missions commended South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) – where 80% of the electoral staff were women. As for women party agent representation, it reached 67%. 

Voters’ education is another key issue and unfortunately is rarely given due consideration. There were several activities/engagements spearheaded by the IEC that brought in community radio outlets, social media platforms, and voter education facilitators. The aim was to inform and educate voters on a number of issues pertaining to voter registration, “Special Voting” (allows voters to vote on predetermined days prior to the set polling day, either at a voting station or from their homes) and the “Three Ballot System” (introduced in 2021 following a Constitutional Court ruling that mandates parliament to devise a new electoral system that accommodates independent candidates). Since the late 1990s, the IEC has invested in electoral research and regularly engages voters through its “Election Satisfaction Survey,” which aims to (i) determine people’s interest in, and perceptions of, the forthcoming elections, (ii) evaluate voting behavior in South Africa, (iii) assess perceptions of voters on the performance of the national, provincial, and local government as it impacts on voter participation, (iv) examine the electoral and political involvement of specific groups, such as women and youth, and (v) evaluate people’s trust in the commission. This allows for a much more informed approach to elections.

Political party agents are often referred to as the boots on the ground of parties/candidates during an election. If ill-disciplined, they can reflect on the quality of an election. For the 2019 elections, the ANC developed a “Party Agents’ Manual,” and in the run-up to the 2024 election 80,000 party agents were trained. It is interesting to note that this manual is accessible to all political parties in South Africa if they wish to make use of its content. In fact, whilst visiting different voting stations, observing the closing of the poll, and staying on for the counting process, I was pleasantly surprised at the sense of cordiality and respect between different political agents. Their focus was to have their eyes on the ballot from the moment that a voter cast his/her vote to the counting and finally the announcement of the results by the presiding officer. Such dedication is indeed a rare feature in a political environment driven by money politics, voter clientelism, and other campaign paraphernalia that have taken center stage.

Media monitoring of election campaigns as well as polling day is critical in ensuring clean and safe elections. This is also important in an age of disinformation, which research indicates reaches its peak during an election campaign. South Africa has a tradition of balanced and independent media but divisive sentiments such as xenophobia and polarized political discourse have created a very charged online and offline environment. The IEC took the lead in the run-up to the election in engaging with tech companies such as TikTok, Meta, and Google but also with one of the leading local media monitoring platforms – Media Monitoring Africa (MMA). MMA’s was used to monitor disinformation/misinformation that allowed citizens to flag such content to relevant bodies. A consortium of the committed to factual and truthful journalism that saw fact-checking organizations, such as Africa Check and as well as the South African News Editors’ Forum (SANEF) and the South African Press Council, join forces.

Independence and Integrity

The independence and integrity of institutions are key to democracy and subsequently play an important role in ensuring elections are fair and competitive. During our briefings with the IEC, the chairperson on several occasions declared that “the IEC does not fear in the way it acts and that there has never been any executive interference.” In fact, the IEC’s “independence”, “impartiality,” and that it must “exercise its powers and perform its function without fear, favor or prejudice” are clearly ascribed in the country’s constitution. It should also be noted that most political parties demonstrated respect and believed in the commission’s independence. No doubt, that was greatly facilitated by the regular consultations spearheaded by the IEC and its commissioners during and between elections. Regular briefings were held with the media and other stakeholders to ensure that everyone was up to speed with the latest updates, be it voter turnout, the counting phase, the results cycle, etc. In fact, we all know the importance of official communication (especially when dealing with elections) to squash any rumors and/or fake news. This is perhaps something that all electoral commissions should consider doing, as this will minimize the need to firefight and ensure a more structured means of communication.

Public broadcasters play an important role in the information landscape of elections. Many of them are funded or partly funded by public money. Their duty to objectivity, accuracy, fairness, impartiality and balance is enshrined in legislation and editorial policies. The SABC in addition to its own “Editorial Guidelines” on election reporting is bound by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) and the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa (ICASA). Particular attention is given to the presentation of “news during election periods so as to ensure attention is given to a thorough examination of the views, policies and campaigns of all the main political parties.” It was interesting to note the dynamic and engaging debates that the SABC hosted before the election and on election night and was never hesitant to be hard on the incumbent party. The fact that both the ICASA and IBA are free from any form of political interference allows them to deliver on their mandate and ensure that the public broadcaster plays its required role, especially during testing moments like an election. Unfortunately, in many countries in Africa public/state media is under the total control of the ruling party/parties, leaving little to no room for informed, balanced, and unbiased news. However, the rapid uptake of social media has allowed the democratization of access but at the same time, the spread of disinformation has tainted the credibility and integrity of news/data circulated on these platforms.

Tools of Checks and Balances

South African political parties and candidates are required to sign and abide by a “Code of Conduct” found in the Electoral Act (Schedule 2, Section 99). Anyone breaching the code is guilty of a criminal offence and can be fined or sent to prison for up to 10 years. To demonstrate not only the legal but also the moral aspect of the “Code of Conduct,” all political parties were convened by the IEC to publicly pledge to the code and ensure due adherence.

The Electoral Act (Chapter 5) provides for an “Electoral Court” with the status of a Supreme Court. Among its key powers/duties/functions is “to review any decision of the Commission relating to an electoral matter and any such review shall be conducted on an urgent basis and be disposed of as expeditiously as possible.” Not only is the Electoral Court a dedicated one but matters are dealt with in an expeditious manner.

Elections are a democratic experiment that should involve all stakeholders – be it citizens, political parties, and institutions – to ensure a collective buy-in. As mentioned earlier, no election is perfect but the latter can be improved by embracing some of the good practices of other countries.

What is important to retain about the South African election is that it was peaceful, that the results were accepted by most political parties, and that the country is entering an era of coalition government coined as a “government of national unity” – 30 years after President Mandela negotiated one in 1994.

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