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Drained but proud: how it felt to organise South Africa’s first democratic election in just 4 months

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Drained but proud: how it felt to organise South Africa’s first democratic election in just 4 months

Drained but proud: how it felt to organise South Africa’s first democratic election in just 4 months

22nd May 2024

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The ConversationHow difficult was it to organise the 1994 elections?

Imagine building an aircraft while flying it at an incredible speed over a short distance, towards a destination where multitudes await its safe landing. Organising the 1994 elections was such an impossible mission. That’s why it is electoral administration folklore to this day.

I was a teaching law at the University of Natal at the time. I joined the 1994 Election Commission (IEC) in January that year as one of the deputies to the adjudication secretary, advocate Mojanku Gumbi. Almost all of us, including commissioners, were inexperienced in electoral administration, and on a perilous maiden voyage. But the commission recruited workers from all walks of life who were aligned to a singular goal of delivering a credible election, come what may. Failure was not an option. The future of the country depended on us. We had to deliver a credible election under the global spotlight.

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It was then unheard of to assemble a national independent infrastructure in just four months – December 1993 to 27 April – to achieve a project that normally takes about two to three years to plan. The political climate was not conducive to a truly free and fair election, and acceptance of the results without too much fuss and fracas.

The commission had full backing and technical support from multilateral institutions, NGOs, donors, corporations, and some government agencies. This enabled it to upscale its technical capacity.

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Besides the impossible timeline, the commission faced an unhealthy and unstable political environment marked by violence. The homelands of KwaZulu, Transkei, Ciskei and Bophuthatswana were not in support of the elections. The right-wing formations were opposed to the elections too.

The IEC had to build trust in an environment with historical trust deficits. Not everyone truly believed that the apartheid regime intended to hand over power. There was distrust between political formations and doubt about the integrity of the IEC and its ability to deliver the elections.

The commission had to build a national electoral administration body quickly and deploy it immediately without any trials or performance tests. It had to have faith in the commitment and quality performance of its staff. Many of us considered ourselves fortunate to have been appointed.

We had a sense of responsibility coupled with honour. Staff morale was high and constantly fuelled by the ever increasing challenges that needed our skills, work ethic and institutional dedication. We were aware that we were organising liberation (also known as founding) elections.

The IEC faced numerous other challenges. For instance, the population database – which informs the quantity of electoral provisions – was inadequate and inaccurate. There was no voters’ roll or register upon which to distribute the voters according to voting stations or districts in their geographical locations.

During the elections, the commission faced logistical problems such as the shortage of the ballot papers and indelible ink, caused, among other things, by the last-minute participation of the Inkatha Freedom Party, poor communication networks,inadequate logistical arrangements, and system malfunction for the counting of results.

Despite all the imperfections of the process, however, political parties, civil society and the international community accepted the election results as credible, under the circumstances.

What effect do you think a boycott by Inkatha would have had on the credibility of the elections?

As the final results showed, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) had little to fear about the election outcomes, especially in KwaZulu-Natal. It won the provincial elections comfortably.

I do not think that the party’s non-participation would have negatively affected the integrity of the elections. It would definitely have been a destabilising factor in many parts of KwaZulu-Natal and in Gauteng where violence had not completely stopped, but reduced after Inkatha joined the elections. The birth pains of our new democracy would have been more intense, marked by civil strife in parts of the country had Inkatha boycotted the elections.

The 20% of the electorate that voted for Inkatha would have been disenfranchised. It would have been a travesty. I was relieved and happy that Inkatha participated and that the commission managed to accommodate it – without complaint or bias.

How would you describe the six days from the announcement that Inkatha would take part, up to the first day of the elections?

The announcement on 19 April of Inkatha’s participation in the election became an institutional nightmare. The IEC was out of time to reprint the millions of ballot papers to include it. The commission’s operational terrain had immediately expanded overnight – 600-700 voting stations were added. Logistics plans to accommodate previously inaccessible areas had to be quickly put in place. I was deployed to augment management and liaison capacity in KwaZulu-Natal.

The decision to attach IFP strips at the bottom end of the ballot paper was a stroke of genius. But it was a huge, tedious and daunting task. It added to the tension during the last week before the elections.

The commission surprised itself by overcoming seemingly unmovable obstacles.

What three factors would you attribute the election’s success to?

Without the IEC’s financial and administrative independence, and the commissioners’ flexibility and innovative approach to problem-solving, the 1994 elections would have failed, and shamed us all.

Mention must be made of the maturity of the politicians as contestants in the election. Their cooperation in solving thorny issues should not be forgotten or understated, but admired. Their acceptance of the final results delivered our democracy.

The people’s commitment to the elections triumphed over doubts and fears.

According to Ben van der Ross, one of the commissioners: It worked because the people of South Africa really wanted it to work.

How did you feel when the elections ended and the results were announced?

I could not believe that I had experienced the demise of apartheid and had been part of a small but critical cogwheel that brought apartheid to its final end. I was overwhelmed and overjoyed that we actually succeeded against the odds to give birth to a new democratic society.

I also felt the after-effects of the receding adrenaline. I felt drained but accomplished at the same time. I felt hopeful for a better future for everyone in South Africa. And I felt proud to be a South African for the first time in my life. It was just incredible.

What key lessons can South Africa and other African countries learn from the 1994 election?

  • The miracle of 1994 was South Africa’s bold step towards a non-violent and peaceful handover of political power through negotiations and universal adult suffrage.

  • Creating a conducive atmosphere to conduct free and fair elections – after so many years of strife and societal divisions – depended on the levels of trust that were built between government, political formations, civil society, the media, business and the international community. The IEC’s integrity was based on society-wide trust and cooperation. Electoral commissions, like sports referees, can only be effective in executing their duties if trusted and respected by all key stakeholders.

  • We all learned that democratic elections can deliver legitimate political changes, if conducted honestly, openly and dutifully. Contrived elections tend to leave voters with a bitter taste.

  • What the IEC achieved in 1994 was a one-off electoral administration wonder which is not recommended for any other country. Elections by their nature require long term planning and meticulous execution, as the electoral administration mantra states: the devil is in the detail.

 

Written by Kealeboga J Maphunye, Professor, Department of Political Sciences, University of South Africa

 

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