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S.Africa Election: Lessons for Africa

By Reuters Staff
April 16, 2009

Manoah Esipisu is deputy spokesperson at the Commonwealth Secretariat. He is co-author of “Eyes of Democracy: Media in Elections”. He writes in his personal capacity.

Next week South Africa will hold its fourth elections since the extinction of apartheid and the rise to power of freedom icon Nelson Mandela. The election will come four months after the cliff-hanger 2008 election in Ghana, and ahead of potentially critical elections in Angola, Malawi and Mozambique.

Elections do not have a very good reputation in Africa, and, in my view, there are seven reasons why.

Lack of political will

So profound and fundamental is this problem that if it is not addressed it can render all the others irrelevant. A botched election is as a result of a deliberate political decision by somebody to subvert the electoral process in their interest. For example, the (now defunct) Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) did not wake up one day and say “We think that we are going to change the results of this election. We think we are going to mess with the paperwork so no one will know what the result of this election was.” It is clear that there was a deliberate decision by a Mr X or a Mr Y to tell the Commission what to do or what not to do. And because of structural or other reasons beyond my immediate understanding, the Commission (as an institution and its leadership) was vulnerable to that kind of pressure.

The lack of political will partly stems from the winner-takes-all model associated with most democratic processes in Africa. There is so much at stake that no one wants to risk losing. No one wants to be on the outside.  There are really no profound ideological differences in the political parties. It is simply that people who are on the inside want to stay on and people who are on the outside want to get on the inside. Being on the inside means that you are in control. Ultimately it is all about money and power.

Abuse of incumbency

An incumbent will use all the resources at their disposal while in office to try and rig the electoral process or manipulate it to their benefit. This is a significant issue of perennial concern to Africans. It takes various shapes and forms. It could range from an incumbent using vehicles and staff from a government department to subverting money (as was the case in Zambia in 2001). It could also be as nasty as the manipulation of state media, the judiciary and the electoral commission. It is a serious problem.

Weak institutions

Many electoral commissions in Africa are weak and vulnerable. They are not properly independent .The way they are nominated and composed – usually by the executive and without a proper vetting process by parliament, leaves them open to abuse and manipulation. They often do not control their budgets and yet the way that budget is released or not released could impact their performance. Whether they are given adequate staff and whether resources are made available on time are critical to whether they can truly play their role as institutions responsible for democratic transition. The problems cited above could lead to a lack of confidence and a credibility crisis for an electoral commission. That’s why electoral commissions can falter and fail. Sometimes it is no fault of their own. They are designed to fail.

Two other institutions are worth mention. The lack of an independent and credible judiciary could be a death sentence to an election. Where does an aggrieved party or individual turn to if they are unhappy with the process? Conversely, when the judiciary stands up to be counted, it can have a very positive effect. If there is one significant positive that came out of the Nigerian election (April 2007), it was the role of the judiciary. In electoral-related cases filed in Nigerian courts, the judiciary came up with a number of decisions that went against the political will of the administration of Olusegun Obasanjo and is seen as a great positive to emerge from the process that was roundly criticised by domestic and international observers.

State media can also be designed to fail. In Malawi for example, the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) was created as a government agency. The broadcaster’s leaders rightly say that unless parliament changes its mandate, they must serve the government in power. Ahead of elections next month, the MBC on average gives the ruling party more than 90 percent of coverage and the one percent to the opposition is all negative.

Weak political systems

Parties are often vehicles for individuals (which could be fine), but personality politics often provoke conflicts. Personal rivalries and fallings out are sometimes allowed to creep onto the national stage. Sadly, it is not about the name of the party or what it stands for, it all comes down to the name of the individual.

Poor voter registration processes

I often come across poor voter registration processes. On the one level it is a very technical issue. It can be down to a lack of civic education, it can be due to a lack of planning and money and resources. But even where there is cash in abundance, it can still go wrong. Ghana acknowledged that it had an inflated roll in some regions in last December’s election while Bangladesh, which had tens of millions of voters, had a perfect register with a digital photo for voter identification.

If people are not registered to vote, they are denied that right and nothing can be more profound. It gives people who want to be aggrieved after the election a good reason for rejecting the result. A good voter register is also your greatest insurance policy for the integrity of the ballot.

Lack of transparency in results process

Transparency is a key issue. This is a very simple thing but ultimately it can create a lack of confidence, suspicion, tension and then violence. And when someone or a party loses, they can claim to have been cheated. If electoral officials fail to provide adequate transparent proofs that a claim of cheating is erroneous, people will assume that it happened. They will say there is no smoke without fire and they will start using it to whip up tensions.

Lack of inclusivity

At the end of the day, elections are run for voters and political parties – who are the customers. And yet the attitude often in Africa is not to keep the customer happy. The attitude is often to keep the customer outside the shop. The parties and voters are seen as the enemy by the electoral commissions rather than stakeholders. One of the greatest strengths of the Ghanaian election was the existence of an inter-parties advisory committee which sought to fix emerging problems through adequate consultation with all those involved. It is a great thing to undermine rumour and conjecture; it is a great thing to enhance confidence. South Africa has a similar arrangement although the model is different from Ghana’s.

South Africa’s case

The extent to which South Africa tackles these challenges – in next week’s elections and beyond – will provide lessons for the growth of democracy in Africa which, although boosted by the smooth transition in Ghana, is still scarred by the 2007 and 2008 elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe.


You just done what should be said enough. I feel Africa is proud of a few and good brains like yours. It is my wish to put in you more pressure in your endeavor to help liberate Africa and this should mark the Genesis of better Africa. The black skin is being eroded by our own black leaders. God liberate Africa

Posted by Lumula Wilberforce | Report as abusive

I think of the seven reasons you have mentioned,Abuse of incumbancy and Lack of inclusivity would be problems in South Africa,s forth coming elections. There have been allegations of the incumbant government ‘buying’ votes with state money,where members of the ruling party are alleged to have accompanied state officials in the department of social welfare to distribute food parcels in poor communities.As for lack of inclusivity it is well known that in Africa when you serve a customer you are doing him/her a favour and not the other way round.That is why there is such poor service delivery in South Africa. State officials think they are doing South African citizens a favour when they serve them.

Posted by jackie | Report as abusive

This in my view is a very technical topic. On the surface it does appear the electoral process is flawed, which I agree with. However, the complexity emerges when you recongise that an election produces a leadership for a defined period and the conduct of that leadership during its term is also an important area to focus on when discussing African politics. Our political systems, while no where near perfect, have improved becoming more accountable, less likely to act in extreme measures and we are also less concentrated through devolution. As the political space increases at least the junior elections are becoming more competitive, with some luck this infection will spread to the rest of the political system. I just hope it will happen in our lifetime.

Posted by Robert Bunyi | Report as abusive

Addressing legitimacy of elections will go a long way in purging Africa of theives,criminals and murderers. These issues will be of greater help than the odd donation here and there as it will encourage more government accountablity.


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Posted by Juniper D | Report as abusive

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