South Africa, the rest of Africa and Elections

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The fifth democratic elections in South Africa have just been concluded fairly and successfully.

Fairly and successfully? How is that synonymous with elections in Africa? Yes that sounds like a generalisation.

However, I have worked in three different countries in Africa over a cumulative period of about twenty years. I think that gives me a reasonable idea of how politics is conducted in this region.

Going back many years, when the conquerors of the west were out and about accumulating other people’s countries into their empires, most of the countries in the continent of Africa were colonised by mainly the British and the French. In the course of their reign the captors subjugated the local African and invoked their own methods of government. For the most part the locals were confined to menial tasks, under educated (to keep them from knowing any better) and were indoctrinated to believing they were less than human. In the process, they were also introduced to Christianity and were taught the religion with, a believe or be damned approach.

Bye and bye, from around the 1950s, when the tide of public opinion was turning against colonisation and the colonists, the empires were gradually dismantled and African nations, governed by Africans, were born. Ghana (known previously as the Gold Coast) is generally believed to be the first African country to receive independence from the British. In fact, South Africa (1910) Egypt (1922), Libya (1951) and Sudan (1956) received their independence from Britain prior to that. However the momentum for independence began in earnest in the period after the second world-war.

The domino effect soon took place and over the next twenty years or so, all colonised nations in Africa were relieved of their shackles and declared free to conduct their own affairs. Amidst much fan-fare and exultation, elections were conducted, constitutions, in the main, along the lines of the Westminister form of government were drawn up and new governments took charge.

The first ten years of government were generally found to be exemplary. In many instances, the first leaders of these newly formed nations, who were at the forefront of agitation for independence and were in fact the more educated, continued to govern for extended periods. The lack of education amongst the general populace, prevented meaningful opposition parties being formed and therefore the original parties that were elected kept on being elected into government.

The politicians in these parties began to taste the fruits of victory and control. And soon the nectar of power began to intoxicate the leaders. So much so, the second ten years of independent rule saw the deterioration of democratic government into one man one party rule. The absence of opposition parties was one of the main factors in the degeneration of benevolent governments into dictatorships.

In the guise of democracy, elections continued to be held where there was only one party to vote for. In some instances, some brave individuals formed opposing parties to contest these elections. They were soon obliterated either by the physical elimination of their leaders or the destruction of whatever votes were cast for them. In short, elections were a farce and democracy died.

In some instances, the military took it on themselves, on the one hand, to address the lack of fair government and on the other, to enjoy the trappings of power. They conducted coups d’etat to topple the current governments and assumed power in their own right. The claims made in their initial broadcasts to the people gave the impression that they were the saviours who were in power temporarily, only until such time as orderly democratic elections were able to be conducted.
These temporary assumptions of power became less and less temporary and more and more permanent. The Generals now imbibed with absolute power became defenceless against their own greed and self-indulgence.

And the story continued in much the same way.

While all this was going on, one country in the south of the African continent, thumbed their nose at the rest of the world and a minority of the populace continued to oppress the majority of the people with their own form of government, termed apartheid. In South Africa, only the white population enjoyed civic rights and were free to go anywhere and do anything they wanted. Everyone else was subject to draconian controls governing their lives.

Through the agitation of many brave, patriotic and enlightened leaders of the local communities, the pressure of trade sanctions imposed by the rest of the world and consigning the country to a pariah status, the oppressors finally relented and true democracy was given birth in 1994.

Elections soon followed and a government elected by the majority of the people in South Africa was formed.

What is interesting is that twenty years on from holding the first election and very unlike empirical evidence of other countries, the form and content of government remains essentially democratic. Even more admirable are the controls (checks and balances) that are practiced in the electoral process.

The printing of ballot papers, is strictly controlled by numbers. The number printed is independently verified by a private accounting firm.

When citizens go to cast their vote, they need to carry their Identification documents. The bar code on the ID document is scanned to confirm that the individual is entitled to vote. The database is updated to reflect that this individual has now cast his vote and is no longer eligible to vote again. Prevents duplicate votes being cast.

In addition, a mark on his thumb is made with indelible ink.

The vote is then cast.

After polling closes, the votes are counted at the polling station. Independent observers and auditors are present at the counting and the total number of votes is reconciled with the total number of people who were scanned as having entered the polling station to vote.

The votes are then tallied against the individuals and parties that received the votes. The tally is also reconciled to the total number of votes. These figures are then entered into a common database. The accuracy of the entry is confirmed by independent auditors.

The entire process is subject to controls each step of the way. Importantly, these controls are effected by independent audit firms (generally the Big 4) and are scrutinised to ensure accuracy.

What is most commendable is that the process has not been interfered with, over these last twenty years, by those in power. Whether it continues in this manner into the future is anyone’s guess. But it augurs well that twenty years since the inception of democratic government in South Africa, it stands tall as a bastion of free government and strong supporters of the principle of one man one vote.

There are many countries, not only in Africa, but indeed around the world who could take a leaf out of the electoral process followed by the world’s newest democracy and implement it in the interest of true independence and freedom.

There are governments around the world who have subverted the electoral process to make sure that they remain in power. These governments claim high levels of literacy and maturity. They are however no different to young African nations who have gone down the path of corrupting the process and are often treated with contempt. What the leaders of these recalcitrant nations are showing is a complete lack of confidence in their own abilities to run for office openly and transparently and face the verdict of the people. Their greed has consumed them to an extent where honesty and principles of integrity are no longer virtues. But indeed are considered irrelevant in their narcissistic pursuit of riches for themselves and their families.

Consequently, it is common to find the general citizen complain about the misdeeds of such governments and resign themselves to a lack of change. No amount of talk and grumbling is going to change the situation for the better. Active participation by the people is paramount in making sure that the rights of people are not taken away by the powerful few who find themselves in government.

It is therefore the responsibility of the people of these countries to actively exert their will in the pursuit of democratic government and the preservation of their freedom.