South Africa’s 4th Local Government Elections: Implications For The Future And Lessons Learned
The fourth local government elections held on May 18, 2011 went off relatively well with minimal incidents of violence or interference, marking another achievement of relatively free and fair multiparty party elections and a sign of deepening culture of democracy in post-apartheid South Africa.
These elections taking place at the time when many parts of the African continent are in turmoil due to challenges in democratic governance as seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Côte d’ Ivoire and Libya for example, offer hope and encouragement that the entrenchment of democracy in the continent is possible, can be achieved and sustained.
The 121 parties that were registered and that took part in the elections is a healthy sign of a viable and desired multi-party system of democratic governance that can only enhance good governance, accountability and participation of citizens in matters of governance – qualities and features of democratic governance provided for by the South African Constitution and advocated for by the 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.
Despite the relative success of these elections, the strong showing by the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) that has been in power since 1994 and the increasing gains made by the official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) including its attraction of African voters; there are several concerns pertaining to the political campaigns leading to these elections and their outcome that should be attended to in order to further entrench the culture of democratic governance in South Africa.
Notwithstanding the provisions of the code of conduct of the Electoral Act 73 of 1999, and the commitment made by the 28 leading political parties to uphold the values and provisions of the code in the pledge they signed just before the elections; the political campaigns leading to the voting/elections while relatively free and fair, captured much of the country’s attention and imagination.
They were marked to some extent by insults hurled at some political leaders and racist labels pinned on some political leaders and parties, as well as incidents of violence and disruptions of campaign activities and veiled threats against voters intending to vote for different political parties.
The leader of the official opposition (the Democratic Alliance) and Premier of the Western Cape Province, who happens to be white, Helen Zille, was for example, referred to as someone who behaves or dances like a monkey and as a racist for the inadequate toilets provided by officials of her party’s local government, whilst some senior black members of her party were described as her maids. The president of the country, Jacob Zuma, also intimated that voters who did not vote for his party will meet the wrath of the ancestors.
Earlier, he had said that those without his party’s membership cards will not be allowed into heaven. Zwelinzima Vavi, the leader of the ANC aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the biggest trade union movement in South Africa, is reported to have said that voters who voted for a different party other than his own, the ANC, are sell-outs.
These utterances are unfortunate in a country where respect for human dignity is not only a core value upon which the post-apartheid South Africa is built, but also the main basis of the African philosophy of Ubuntu, which requires social discourse including political activity to be characterized by respect of the dignity of fellow human beings despite differences in views and opinions. The utterances also violate the provisions or the spirit of the South African electoral code of conduct which prohibits language or conduct that may ‘provoke violence during an election’ or that may intimidate those involved in the electoral process including the voters and are inimical to political pluralism and tolerance required by the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.
The threat of the gods wreaking havoc on those not voting for the ruling party or the ANC membership card being a prerequisite for admission to heaven as made by the president of the country, while arguably made in jest, was intended to influence voters espousing such beliefs and should therefore be discouraged. The electoral code in this regard prohibits the abuse of ‘a position of power, privilege or influence’ intended to ‘influence the conduct or outcome of an election. Political campaigns, akin to an African market of ideas and policies, should be free from such utterances and conduct, and the buyers should be free to choose what produce they want to purchase without threats or intimidation.
While the central focus of the elections was about the ability of each political party to provide effective and efficient governance at the local level that would best advance the rights and interests of the voters, including the provision of service delivery such as housing, roads, water and sanitation; the outcome of the election results, to a large extent, still reflects the racial divide that has characterized elections since 1994. A legacy of the past racist apartheid and colonial regimes, in which African people who make about 70 % of the population voted in the main for the ruling party, the African National Congress, which obtained about 62% of the total votes. Whilst, a majority of White, Indian and Colored people voted for the official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, which also control the Western Cape Province following the 2009 national and provincial elections, and the City of Cape Town where African people are not in the majority.
While the outcome of the 2011 elections, the fourth since 1994, show a positive movement away from raced-based elections to one where service delivery and good governance becomes the main feature and focus of the elections, a lot more needs to be done to educate South Africans about making appropriate electoral choices in line with South Africa’s vision of a non-racial and non-sexist society, where peaceful and harmonious existence and the pursuit of a life free from fear and want should be the common aspiration for all. A South Africa in which, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jnr, politicians and political parties will not be judged by the color of their skins but by their ability to govern, promote and protect the interests of their citizens. This will not be an easy challenge for South Africa with its history of racism and resultant injustices and inequalities, but a challenge that has to be met and addressed if democracy is to thrive and if South Africa is to make greater progress in uplifting many of its people from poverty and in attaining a more equitable distribution of the national wealth.
The voter turn over for the elections at 57.5%, whilst an improvement over the 2006 (at 48%), 2000 (at 48%) and 1995/96 (at 49%)), is still not very high compared to national and provincial elections and despite the importance of service delivery and the closeness of local government to the citizens. One reason for this is the apparent unhappiness amongst many voters over the quality of services provided by local government authorities and the general challenges of effectiveness and governance in this sphere of governance that has been characterized by numerous service protests that are sometimes accompanied by violence and destruction of public and private property.
This low turnover does not augur well for the strengthening of democratic governance, and in fostering accountability and transparency in public affairs. Voters should be encouraged to participate in local government issues – the interest generated by the 2011 elections will certainly and hopefully see greater participation of South African citizens going forward. The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance in Article 2 also requires African states to ‘promote the establishment of the necessary conditions to foster citizen participation….in the management of public affairs.’
South Africans should however be congratulated for the outcome of these elections despite related concerns and challenges.
The journey and progress South Africa has made since its first democratic and non-racial elections in 1994 notwithstanding its long history of injustice and inequalities should inspire many other African countries that are still grappling with challenges of democratic governance and the holding of free and fair regular elections that are crucial for African development and an antidote for much of Africa’s insecurity, instability, violent conflicts, underdevelopment and abuse of natural resources to act accordingly.
These elections and similar ones elsewhere on the continent should also send a clear signal that democracy and free and fair elections are possible on the African continent and should hopefully encourage African states to bring into operation the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance that was adopted by African Head of Governments and States in 2007 but not yet in operation due to a lack of a mere 15 signatures of ratification by African states.
So far only eight eights African states have ratified the Charter, South Africa being one of them while important states like Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya have not yet done so. South Africans in view of their own experiences in having democratic elections and the resultant benefits should also use their influence and experiences to assist in the advancement of democratic governance in the African continent in general and in getting other African States to bring the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance into operation.
By Tseliso Thipanyane
Tseliso Thipanyane, independent consultant on human rights, democracy and good governance and former chief executive officer of the South African Human Rights Commission. Tseliso is Director-Editorial and Marketing at AfrobeatRadio. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org