Elections show democracy as beacon of hope

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

As the guiding light of independence in Africa, South Africa will on Wednesday further demonstrate to the world its commitment to democracy, writes Bathandwa Mbola.

South Africans of all colours, shapes and sizes, will take to the polls on Wednesday to have their say in electing a new administration in the country, when they cast their votes in the 2009 General Elections.

The Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA) sees the elections as significant not only as the 15th anniversary of South Africa's democracy, but as an example to neighbouring countries.

"In view of the leading role of South Africa, a number of countries in the region are looking at us to stage a successful election," Titi Pitso, Manager responsible for Election and Political Process in the Johannesburg based EISA told BuaNews.

She indicated that if this year's general elections went smoothly, it would be the fourth time the country had successfully completed them on its own.

"These elections can establish South Africa as a country which can at least manage its affairs in terms of the elections," she said, highlighting that countries such as Angola, Botswana, Mauritius, Malawi, Mozambique and Namibia, where elections are being planned, can take "lessons" from South Africa.

Elaborating, she described South Africa's democracy as being a "beacon of hope" for the continent.

"South Africa's peaceful and successful political transformation has indeed set a stage for struggling African nations to follow suit.

"With effective reforms in the democratic institutions and organs such as the executive, the Judiciary and the legislative; checks and balances become the cornerstone of democratic success," she explained.

Ms Pitso said the institute, which aims to strengthen electoral processes, good governance, human rights and democratic values through research, capacity building and advocacy, was aware that perhaps, after 15 years, some have become disillusioned or cynical and no longer feel enthusiastic or excited about the voting.

In this light, she urged them to seize the opportunity to deepen democracy in a spirit of participation and solidarity.

"Let us never lose sight of the hope we had to build a new, just, and caring society in which everyone is at home."

EISA described voting as a human right, where one has the opportunity to deepen the country's democracy and democracy is about the future.

"Casting a vote is a sign of commitment to the future, and when we do this we must, as South Africans, do so in a positive spirit.

"In the short-term, it is about who will run the country for the next few years; in the long-term it is about all of us taking ongoing responsibility for ourselves, for each other," she explained.

South Africa has become a well-functioning democracy in a comparatively short time with three successful national and provincial elections being held since 1994.

According to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) these polls are expected to be the biggest since 1994.

There are 23 million South Africans registered to vote in the provincial and general elections with 26 political parties contesting the national elections and 41 contesting the elections at both national and provincial levels.

More than 15 EISA election monitors, all from the Southern African Development Community, will be deployed in provinces to monitor the elections.

The right to vote is often taken as the most fundamental proof of citizenship, however, it is also important to realise that citizenship does not begin and end with voting, explains Ivor Jenkins, Director at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) .

"The more that people don't make their choices by voting, the less sure we can be that the party that eventually wins is in fact the one that enjoys the most support.

"This in turn will affect the legitimacy of whatever government is elected and will undermine the very democracy that the country struggled for so long."

He said every time that the country conducts a peaceful, free and fair election, with a high turn-out of voters, we once again 'showcase' democracy.

"We set an example to many 'first-world' democracies and we inspire our sisters and brothers in countries near to us and far away who are still deprived of democratic freedom."

Looking back to what the country was, Mr Jenkins said it was clear that the country had made significant progress in many areas.

"In 1992, there were people killed and some injured in political violence; we had no Bill of Rights, nor the mechanisms for enforcing them; distrust and tension between the races was sky-high and overall uncertainty and insecurity about the future was rife.

"Clearly, from such starting-points we have come very far indeed," Mr Jenkins told BuaNews.

Acknowledging that no democracy is perfect, he said it was for this reason that people should go to the polls on Wednesday to make their voices heard.

A recent survey conducted by the Human Science Research Council found that South Africans in general were positive about the elections.

"Significantly, 80 percent indicated that they were interested in the provincial and national elections," noted the study, whose results was released in February.

At least 4 000 South Africans from all nine provinces participated in the survey.