21 years after South Africa’s 1994 elections: Have we come of age?



International election experts warned that South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 would take one to two years to organise.  It was accomplished, against all odds, in four months.  Imperfect, but widely considered and accepted as the will of the South African people, these elections united South Africans while they were waiting in long queues to cast their votes.

It was seven times bigger than any previous election, almost 20 million people voted (half of them for the first time) at 10 500 voting stations, many in deep rural hamlets with no transport, electricity or water and without today’s information and communications technology.  Urban violence, sabotage, bloody clashes between political opponents, even armed invasions tested the Independent Electoral Commission, security forces and those who had crafted a peace deal.  It simply had to be ratified in a general election and 27 April 1994 was cast in stone.

The IEC grew from one staff member, its chairman, Judge Johann Kriegler, in December 1993 to 350 000 election staff on voting days.  A massive voter education drive saw 6 million manuals in 11 languages distributed countrywide to overcome illiteracy:  voter turnout was 86% plus, spoilt ballots were less than 1%.

The ’94 election story is about:

·       dark hours when the IEC was hit with surprises and crises

·       superhuman efforts and battle-like logistics to give people that precious chance to vote

·       frustrating, humiliating and tense negotiations with Bophuthatswana and KwaZulu to participate in the ballot and allow electioneering in their territories

·       violence on the East Rand, the Shell House shooting, no-go areas and Operation Access to open them

·       how, in the final stages, Pres. De Klerk was no longer governing and Mr. Mandela was not yet governing leaving the IEC to hold the reins

·       how international media descended on South Africa expecting bloodshed

·       how court action threats by major political parties on the eve of announcing the election results, almost scuppered a national effort

·       how it all worked out.

What did South Africa learn from 1994?

What would it take to rekindle the multi-party leadership and those proud moments?

(Pieter Cronjé was the Director of Media and Public Relations for the Independent Electoral Commission in 1994)