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30 years of democracy: South Africa continues to enjoy free and fair elections despite challenges


By Tendai Shephard Mbanje




Introduction: Context of South Africa’s 2024 elections


On the 29th of May 2024, South Africa held its seventh consecutive democratic National and Provincial Elections. This election coincided with the country's celebration of 30 years of democracy (1994-2024). The electoral environment was highly competitive. Thirty-one (31) new political parties emerged, including Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK Party), which participated in the elections for the first time and emerged as the third-largest opposition party. The election was held in the context of social and economic challenges, including high rates of unemployment, crime, and inequality. Electricity load shedding remained a critical issue, shaping the focus of election debates, party manifestos, and campaigns. Considering this, this paper presents an analysis of South Africa's 2024 National and Provincial elections highlighting the opportunities and challenges presented. It is also important to note that this paper is written while some aspects of the electoral process are incomplete. These include the formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU), and some pending post-election dispute resolutions.


The legal framework governing democratic elections in South Africa


South Africa's elections were governed by the Constitution, the Electoral Act, and other relevant domestic legislation. The electoral process was also guided by the principles and obligations for democratic elections stipulated in the African Charter, The African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance, the OAU/African Union (AU) Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic elections among other relevant regional and international instruments. In the context of the 2024 elections, some key reforms were introduced in the Electoral Act 73, 1998, and included the amendment that allowed for the inclusion and nomination of independent candidates as contestants to elections in the National Assembly and Provincial Legislatures. The amendment also stipulated the criteria for their nomination and seat allocation.


Observations unique to the SA’s 2024 elections


Election analysts and election observation missions observed that the 2024 elections were characterized by an unprecedented level of litigation, with 17 cases being brought forth, heard, and decided. Among these cases, a landmark ruling was observed which required the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to establish additional voting stations abroad and include all Embassies, High Commissions, and Honorary Consulates. The IEC however could not implement this requirement due to logistical and budgetary challenges. Participation of independent candidates for the first time in the election was a win. However, it required these candidates to appoint agents to ensure fairness. It was observed that this stretched the resources and capacities of independent candidates, as their constituencies spanned entire provinces. Election analysts observed that this was not practical although the law had been amended to ensure their participation.


Of note, an amendment was made to Section 24(a) of the Electoral Act which stipulates that voters will only be allowed to cast ballots outside their registered voting district if they provide notice. Although this was positive at law, the implementation of this amendment varied across the country as some voters were turned away while at some stations, others were given the national ballot. Election analysts were of the view that this inconsistency in procedure application can be attributed to insufficient training of officials and inadequate voter education. Furthermore, the interpretation of Section 47(e) of the Constitution, on the eligibility of candidates was a hotly contested and significant issue, which was ultimately resolved by the Constitutional Court. The Court's ruling disqualified former President Jacob Zuma (the leader of the MK Party) from contesting as a candidate and upheld the earlier decision by the IEC, reinforcing the IEC's credibility and validating its adherence to constitutional provisions.


Preparedness of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC)


In line with its mandate, the IEC developed and implemented the election timetable in consultation with the Political Liaison Committee. Analysts noted that the IEC entered this electoral phase with reduced financial resources despite an expanded mandate. Before the election, the IEC conducted successful voter registration. Both physical and online platforms were used. The IEC utilized multiple platforms to conduct voter education including the deployment of community educators, the use of community radio stations, TV voter education programs, and social media, and collaboration with Chapter 9 institutions. These efforts were complemented by political parties and civil society organizations. Analysts observed that the online platform was made available to diaspora voters for the first time during the 2024 elections, thereby expanding voter participation. The certified total number of voters for the 2024 elections was 27,782,477, marking a marginal increase of 3.9% compared to the 26,736,803 registered voters in 2019. However, the gap between the voting-age population and registered voters widened. Most of the unregistered voters are youth, reflecting a concerning trend of electoral disengagement.


Seventy (70) political parties were registered to participate in the elections with 52 registered to contest the proportional representation ballot. For the first time in the electoral history of South Africa, 11 independent candidates participated in the elections which increased the options available to voters. Campaigns were conducted freely without fear and intimidation. The campaigns focused on addressing key economic and social challenges, on issues such as job creation, access to basic needs, crime reduction, and resolving the energy crisis. Media adhered to the legal provisions by providing equitable coverage for political parties and candidates specifically during rallies and launching of manifestos.


Women constituted most registered voters at 55%, female candidates comprised only 41.86% of all candidates on party lists. Specifically, 15 political parties achieved female representation of 50% or higher, seven parties had 40% female representation, and an additional 14 parties had 30% female representation on their lists. Analysts observed that most of the polling staff on election day were women, reflecting the demographic reality of most of the population. Furthermore, a significant proportion of polling staff and party agents were women and youths. For the first time, the application of the Universal Ballot Template (UBT) enabled voters with visual impairments to vote independently and in secret. The IEC made provisions for special voting for all eligible voters to ensure equal participation. There was a significant increase in the number of registered special voters by 105.8% from 774,094 in 2019 to 1,592,949 in 2024. However, concerns were raised about the secrecy of the ballot for the home visits due to the proximity of the voters and staff and the layout of the homes.


Election day and the voting process


Election Observer Missions noted that most polling stations opened on time while few opened late. The delays were attributed to technical glitches associated with voter management devices (which delayed the process of manual voting), inadequate preparations by polling station officials, and the late arrival of polling materials and staff. Election observers further noted a lack of uniformity in the implementation of the opening procedures which increased the duration of sorting the ballot papers during closing and counting. Voting and counting took place in an open and transparent atmosphere in the presence of observers, party agents, and the media. Citizen observers were the majority on election day. Most election observation missions observed the presence of party agents in all polling stations, majorly from ANC, DA, EFF and MK. It was recorded that all closing and counting procedures were followed in most voting stations. All voters who were in the queue at the time of closing were allowed to vote, some polling stations closed late because of the long queues. The results were announced publicly and posted outside polling stations and party/candidate agents were given a copy of the results. These measures contributed to the transparency of the process.


Lessons learned


Both domestic and international election observation missions were of the view that the elections were conducted in a generally transparent and peaceful atmosphere in compliance with the national laws of the country and in accordance with international standards. Election observation missions were impressed with the resilience and enthusiasm of the South African people who, in the face of some logistical challenges, braved long queues to ensure they cast their vote. On the other hand, the IEC was largely professional and maintained an open channel of communication with all stakeholders during the electoral process providing regular updates and engagements. Although the elections were successful, it is recommended that in future elections, amendments to the electoral laws should be done timely to allow the IEC to have sufficient time to implement the electoral calendar. The IEC was encouraged to double its efforts in logistical preparations and to improve election technology for future elections.


Conclusion

While the electoral environment was highly competitive and the election was held in the context of social and economic challenges, South Africa’s elections in a 30-year democracy present a good opportunity for Africa to learn and reflect on how the rule of law prevailed during the electoral process and how the IEC made South Africa and Africa proud by diligently and excellently adhering to its mandate despite budgetary and logistical constraints.


Tendai Shephard Mbanje is a doctoral candidate specializing in International Human Rights Law at the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria. Tendai is a governance, and election legal scholar whose research focuses on electoral processes within the African Union (AU) and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs). Tendai has served as a research and technical Assistant at the Secretariat of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in Banjul, The Gambia. He is an accredited international election observer with African Union Election Observer Missions (AUEOMs) and the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA). He has observed elections in many parts of Africa. Most recently, Tendai served as an Assistant Election Analyst to the European Union Election Observation Mission to Zimbabwe 2023 Harmonised Elections. In South Africa’s 2024 elections, Tendai is serving as an Election Analyst and Deputy Chief Observer for The Centre for African Governance Election Observation Mission.

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