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Time is running out to become an observer and contribute to the integrity of the elections

Time is running out to become an observer and contribute to the integrity of the elections
Illustrative image: With so much at stake in what is expected to be the most contested national election since 1994, South African citizens can do their part to protect the validity and legitimacy of the 2024 elections by registering to become election observers. (Photos: Lihlumelo Toyana; Supplied; Alet Pretorius)

Defend our Democracy is urging organisations and individuals to become election observers. By becoming an election observer, the ordinary active citizen is given the opportunity to have oversight over the electoral process.

In just over a month from now, South Africans will take to the polls for the country’s seventh democratic provincial and national government elections.

South Africa is among some 64 other countries hosting elections in 2024, with a recent article by Time Magazine calling it the “ultimate election year”.

The global electoral hype kicked off quite early in 2024, with elections already being held in among others Costa Rica, Jamaica, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Iran, Taiwan, Finland, Belarus and Croatia.

The 2024 electoral year, however, has not been without its problems. Already, Pakistan and Russia’s elections were marred by some controversy, while in the Comoros, a curfew was imposed after its leader was elected for a fourth term.

In India’s Chandigarh region, the mayoral election came under scrutiny after an electoral officer was caught on camera “defacing” ballots. In Senegal, elections were postponed and then eventually held, while in Togo, citizens are still waiting for rescheduled elections to take place.

And in Chad, where elections are to be held in May, the main opposition leader was killed in a shootout with security forces.

It is within this global and continental context that South Africa will host what many believe will be the most contested elections in its 30 years of freedom.

Elections as the starting point for accountability

South Africa has in its relatively young democracy held elections that have been widely accepted as free and fair. By no small measure, this is due to the processes put in place by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

A 2021 survey by Afrobarometer put public trust in the IEC as an institution at 36%. At face value, this appears to be low, but in comparison to that of Parliament (28%), the governing party (27%) and opposition parties (24%), the IEC is seen in a more favourable light.

Indicators from the 2023 Afrobarometer research suggests that although 70% of South Africans are dissatisfied with the way in which democracy is working in the country, 65% believe that elections are the best way to choose the country’s leadership.

What this points to is that despite voter apathy (the last local government elections only saw a turnout of 45.86%), elections are still considered the central thread of the country’s democratic fabric.

A similar sentiment was expressed by numerous organisations and activists who attended civil society movement Defend our Democracy’s workshops across all nine provinces in February this year. While there was a feeling by some that elections might not necessarily yield the change they seek in communities, there was a recognition that elections remain an important part of the democratic process and are the starting point for public accountability work.

Parties attempting to discredit IEC must be called out

As we lead up to the 2024 elections though, there have already been unwarranted attempts to discredit the IEC and cast doubt on South Africa’s electoral processes. These fearmongering tactics must be widely condemned.

On an MK party platform recently, a pastor addressed the crowd saying that if MK did not get a two-thirds majority and the ANC remained in power, “we are going to close SA for good”. This threat, considering the inciting narratives that drove the July 2021 violence, is rather alarming. The pastor went on to warn, “we want to say to the IEC you better do it the right way, or we are coming for you”.

Defend our Democracy in March 2024 similarly called out the DA’s letter to the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. The organisation’s statement read that “asking for foreign assistance for domestic observation work and voter education is similarly unhelpful in this climate. The same can be said for the ANC’s retort that it would consider bringing its own ‘friends’ to observe the elections.”

South Africa should be mindful of international examples where politicians sought to discredit elections for their own narrow gains. Take the case of Donald Trump, whose claims of electoral fraud led his supporters to storm the US Capitol in January 2021.

And while Trump could well be back in the White House later this year despite his actions, in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro was barred for eight years for similarly trying to discredit the country’s electoral results.  

How to help ensure electoral integrity?

So, what can society do to mitigate threats to the elections and to our democracy? There are several things which ordinary members of the public and organisations can do to ensure a credible, free and fair election in South Africa.

The first would be for registered voters to come out and vote on election day. Voting every five years means re-investing into a democratic process that determines the future trajectory of the country. Voters in this election should take the time to understand changes to the electoral system, assess political party manifestos, evaluate the quality of candidates and find out who funds the political party/parties of their choice.

Secondly, we should hold parties and leaders accountable to the Electoral Code of Conduct. This code prevents the use of language that provokes violence, voter intimidation, offering any inducement or reward to a person to vote for a party and abusing a position of power or privilege to influence the outcome of an election.

In Brazil’s last presidential election, civil society organisations took a decisive stance and called out Bolsonaro for attempting to undermine what was widely accepted as a free and fair election, quickly putting a lid on any sustained post electoral instability.

In South Africa, civil society organisations should not be afraid to do the same in defence of democracy. A free and fair election lays the basis for political stability and a climate of trust considering potential coalition talks.

Thirdly, Defend Our Democracy is urging organisations and individuals to become election observers. By becoming an election observer, the ordinary active citizen is given the opportunity to have oversight over the electoral process. Through a campaign that was launched in November last year called “Election Watch”, Defend our Democracy aims to harness the collective grassroots footprint of organisations and individuals in various parts of the country.

Observers will share their feedback into a common app system. From sample data coming from observers at voting stations across the country, we will be able to evaluate feedback and pronounce broadly on the integrity of the elections.

Observers cannot get involved in mediating issues within a voting station, but their very presence can act as a deterrent to forms of electoral fraud or post-electoral disputes.

As we mark 30 years of democracy in this “ultimate election year”, it is in the interests of all who want this country to prosper to ensure that our elections are free, fair and credible.

To contribute to the integrity of the upcoming elections, visit the Defend our Democracy website to register as an election observer before the 1 May deadline. DM

Zaakirah Vadi is executive director of Defend Our Democracy.


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