Bunkers, Bogeymen and Bold Breakthroughs


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

International election experts warned that South Africa’s first democratic elections 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 waiting in long queues to cast their votes.

It was seven times bigger than any previous election, almost 20 million people voted at 10 500 voting stations, a third without water or electricity, in deep rural hamlets 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%.

Pieter Cronjé was in the thick of it:  As Communication Director and spokesperson of the IEC. In a fascinating, scary, humorous and uplifting talk, he will take you on that journey.  He will tell the story of:

ü The dark hours when the IEC was hit with decisive surprises and crises

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

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

ü Violence on the East Rand, the Shell House shooting, no-go areas and Operation Access

ü How Pres. De Klerk was no longer governing and Mr. Mandela was not yet governing leaving the IEC to hold the reins

ü How international media descended on South Africa expecting bloodshed

ü Court action threats by major political parties on the eve of announcing the election results, almost scuppered a national effort

ü What did we learn from 1994?

ü What would it take to relive our proud moments?

The story starts in 1994, but does not end there.

If ever there was a study in continuous contingency planning and dealing with crises, this was it.

At the start of the opressure cooker process, Judge Kriegler said: “This is an insuromuntable opportunity.”

When the election was done and peace, calm and dignity settled upopn South Africa, he confessed to a gathering of business people: “Maybe we were too stupid to realise this was impossible.”

Pieter was Communication Director and spokesperson for the 2010 Football World Cup in Cape Town.  He gives an insightful analysis of South Africa’s journey and reflects on where we are today, 21 years down Democracy Road.

What has gone right in South Africa the past two decades?  What has gone wrong and why?  How do we improve or fix it?

This first-hand story is about leadership and ordinary people in extraordinary events.  It is South Africa’s story.