South African Elections 2024
A Critical Third-Eye Lens

Reflections on the Democratic Mosaic of 2024 South African Election
South Africa Elections

People stand in line to vote in South African elections

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Introduction: Embracing the Diversity of African Democracy

As a Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and East African Cooperation at ACT Wazalendo, my journey into the world of electoral observation has been a transformative one. Coming from the historical hub of election chaos in Zanzibar, I had the opportunity to participate in an International Election Observer Mission in South Africa from 24th to 31st May 2024, which proved to be a profound learning experience. This article aims to share the insights and lessons I've gathered, while exploring the nuanced and flexible nature of democracy across the African continent.

The 2024 South African general election presented a stark contrast to the often turbulent electoral processes in my home country of Zanzibar. Prior to the election, I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop organised by a coalition of international and local groups, including the Danish Liberal Democratic Programme, Fredrich Naumann Foundation and Democratic Alliance. The workshop, facilitated by Penny Tainton from Evolve Consulting Firm, focused on providing participants with a deeper understanding of South African Election history, richness of diversities and dynamics expected to shape the upcoming election.

The diverse group of participants hailed from a range of countries, including Burkina Faso, Zambia, Malawi, Netherlands, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Morocco, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, South Africa, Britain, and the United States. This cross-cultural exchange allowed for a rich dialogue and exchange of perspectives on the electoral process.

Lessons from South Africa: Celebrating the Electoral Spectacle

During the pre-election period, the group also witnessed political rallies, which demonstrated the strong public interest and enthusiasm for the democratic process in South Africa. On Election Day, the atmosphere was one of festivity and civic engagement, with people embracing the act of voting as a cherished right to be exercised with pride and enthusiasm.

Interestingly, party agents were allowed to participate in the electoral process by identifying and confirming their voters at the polling stations, although they were not permitted to wear party regalia. Meanwhile, voters were free to wear anything they chose, which I interpreted as a symbol of respect for individual opinions and freedom of choice.

One of the most striking observations was the presence of lively community celebrations, with music festivals and dancing taking place near polling stations. This tradition of turning Election Day into a community celebration spoke volumes about the deep-rooted democratic ethos in South African society.

From the experience of this election, it is evident that South Africa is rich in diversity and the freedom of choice does not limit anyone from social, trade union and religious group to be a candidate which is not the case in some African Countries like Ours.

The 2024 South African General Election was marked by timely management, involving strategic planning and resource investment by political parties and civil society organisations. This meticulous preparation ensured an inclusive, transparent, and responsive democratic process that met the needs of the electorate.

There were valid concerns about the electoral process in South Africa that deserved attention. No democratic system is perfect, and several factors can contribute to issues or inefficiencies. The commentary around the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) slipping in their delivery of an excellent electoral process is troubling. The failure of their voter management devices (VMDs) and inability to quickly shift to manual systems resulted in long queues, which have opened the door for potential chaos and disruption during the election and results process

This highlights the importance of having robust, flexible, and well-tested electoral systems in place. When technological components fail, there need to be clear contingency plans and the ability to revert to manual processes seamlessly. Failure to do so can undermine public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process. Vigilance and close monitoring of the IEC's performance is warranted to identify areas that need improvement.

Ultimately, maintaining the excellence and credibility of the electoral process is critical for democracy. While no system is perfect, proactively addressing issues and ensuring a smooth, transparent process is essential. The commentary around the IEC's shortcomings should be taken seriously and used to drive reforms and enhancements that strengthen South Africa's democratic institutions and practices.

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Zanzibar's Lessons: Confronting the Specters of Violence and Repression

The electoral histories of Zanzibar and South Africa, two nations with vastly different political and social backgrounds, offer a stark contrast in their trajectories towards democratic consolidation. While South Africa has made significant strides in strengthening its democratic institutions and fostering a vibrant culture of civic engagement, Zanzibar has grappled with a troubling legacy of violence, repression, and a consistent erosion of democratic norms.

Zanzibar's electoral landscape between 1995 and 2020 has been marked by a consistent pattern of violence, voter intimidation, and the blatant disregard for the will of the people. In the 1995 general election, the first multi-party election held in Zanzibar since the country's independence, the electoral process was marred by widespread irregularities, leading to protests and clashes between security forces and opposition supporters. This set the tone for the subsequent elections, with each cycle bringing a new wave of violence and political turmoil.

The 2000 general election was particularly tumultuous, with reports of killings, destruction of property, and the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters. The 2005 election was no better, with security forces cracking down on peaceful protests and the opposition boycotting the process altogether. The 2010 and 2015 elections followed a similar trajectory, with allegations of voter suppression, ballot box stuffing, and the deployment of security forces to intimidate and harass opposition supporters.

Across this 25-year period, the Zanzibar electoral process has been characterised by a tragic loss of life, with numerous reports of civilians killed during election-related violence. The exact death toll is difficult to ascertain, but estimates range from dozens to hundreds, depending on the specific election cycle. Additionally, the destruction of property, including the burning of homes, businesses, and campaign offices, has been a recurring feature, inflicting significant economic and social harm on the population.

The stark contrast between the electoral histories of Zanzibar and South Africa has had a profound impact on the respective countries' democratic progress. In Zanzibar, the persistent cycles of violence, voter suppression, and the erosion of democratic institutions have undermined the legitimacy of the political system and eroded public trust in the electoral process.

This has had a deleterious effect on the overall quality of democracy, with Zanzibar's citizens experiencing an increasingly restricted civic space, limited political freedoms, and a growing sense of disempowerment. The repeated failures to uphold the integrity of elections have also contributed to a deepening of political polarisation and the entrenchment of authoritarian tendencies.

The lessons from Zanzibar serve as a sobering reminder of the fragility of democracy and the importance of safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process. It is crucial that we learn from these experiences and work tirelessly to cultivate a political culture that respects human rights, upholds the freedom of choice, and values the sanctity of the ballot.

Towards an African Renaissance: Celebrating Diversity and Embracing Africanism

As we look towards the 2025 general election in Tanzania, it is imperative that we draw inspiration from the vibrant and inclusive democratic traditions witnessed in Our Neighbouring countries such as South Africa. While recognising the unique cultural and historical contexts that shape each country's political landscape, we must strive to create an environment where Africanism and democracy can thrive in harmony.

Africanism, the pride and celebration of our diverse cultural heritage, has the power to infuse our democratic processes with a unique and authentic flavour. By embracing the rich tapestry of traditions, languages, and belief systems that define the African continent, we can create electoral systems that resonate deeply with the aspirations and values of our people.

In this regard, the South African example offers valuable insights. The integration of traditional elements, such as the vibrant Election Day celebrations, into the democratic fabric serves as a powerful testament to the flexibility and adaptability of democracy. It demonstrates that the freedom to exercise our constitutional rights can coexist with the cherished traditions that define our cultural identity.

Cultivating a Culture of Civic Engagement and Electoral Integrity

As we embark on the journey towards the 2025 Zanzibar general election, it is crucial that we prioritise the cultivation of a robust culture of civic engagement and electoral integrity. This endeavour must be rooted in the principles of transparency, inclusivity, and the unwavering commitment to upholding the rights and freedoms of all citizens.

One key aspect of this transformation is the need to invest heavily in voter education and awareness campaigns. By empowering our citizens with knowledge and understanding of their democratic rights and responsibilities, we can foster a more engaged and informed electorate. This, in turn, will enable them to make informed choices, hold their leaders accountable, and actively participate in shaping the future of our nation.

Furthermore, we must strengthen the institutional frameworks that safeguard the integrity of the electoral process. This includes ensuring the independence and impartiality of electoral management bodies, implementing robust systems for data collection and analysis, and establishing effective mechanisms for addressing electoral disputes and irregularities. 

The Road Ahead: Embracing the Complexity of African Democracy

The journey towards a more vibrant and inclusive democracy in Zanzibar, and across the African continent, is a complex and multifaceted endeavour. It requires a delicate balance between honouring our cultural traditions and embracing the universal principles of democratic governance.

As we look to the future, we must be willing to engage in open and honest dialogues, to learn from the experiences of our neighbours, and to continuously adapt our approaches to the ever-evolving realities of our societies. By doing so, we can create a political landscape that celebrates the diversity of African democracy, empowers our citizens, and sets the stage for a truly transformative and sustainable future.

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Conclusion: Unlocking the Promise of African Democracy

The lessons I have gathered from my participation in the South African election observer mission, coupled with the sobering experiences of Zanzibar's past, have instilled in me a deep appreciation for the complex and ever-evolving nature of democracy in Africa. As we approach the crucial 2025 general election in Zanzibar, we must draw inspiration from the vibrant and inclusive traditions witnessed in South Africa, while remaining steadfast in our commitment to upholding the fundamental rights and freedoms of our citizens.

By embracing Africanism, cultivating a culture of civic engagement, and strengthening the institutional frameworks that safeguard electoral integrity, we can unlock the promise of a truly transformative and representative democracy. This journey may be arduous, but it is one that we must undertake with unwavering resolve, for the sake of our nation, our continent, and the generations to come.