Does South Africa’s silver anniversary have a silver lining somewhere?

When South Africans go to the polls on 8 May, it will mark 25 years of democracy. The first democratic election in 1994 signalled the formal end to apartheid.

Much of the initial euphoria about the “rainbow nation” and its peaceful transition has evaporated. On 8 May many South African voters will be more disillusioned, cynical, concerned and scared than in 1994. “State capture”, “Gupta”, “Zondo” and “Zuma” have caused this apprehension. Is there a silver lining around the ominous clouds of plundering, corruption, poor service delivery, struggling economy, absence of ethics, poverty, inequality and intolerance?

1994 was the tipping point for continuing violence or peace. Is the 2019 election the tipping point for the laborious recovery of South Africa’s economy, order, and values to become a properly functioning country? Is it a downward spiral due to a terminal, systemic gangster cancer that drags South Africa’s international image through the mud and fans populism and violence? More urgently, will the financial, management and maintenance crisis at Eskom dim South Africa’s economic lights?

Is 2019 the last election before a realignment of political forces?

The urgency of the 1994 election was upped dramatically by the assassination of Chris Hani.  International experts warned South Africa would need two or at the very least one year to prepare for elections. It happened in a mere four months.

In December 1993 the Independent Electoral Commission consisted of one staff member, Judge Johann Kriegler. On 27 April 1994 the IEC had deployed an electoral army numbering 350 000. Most of the 20 million South Africans who voted, had not voted before. There was ignorance, fear, intimidation, and disinformation. The IEC and the Educational Support Services Trust (ESST) produced and distributed 6 million copies of a voter education manual in all eleven official languages and ran a national voter education campaign. The voter turnout was more than 86% and spoilt ballot papers made up less than 1% of the total.

A third of the 10 5000 voting stations had no water or electricity. There was no electoral list and people could vote where they chose to  – a logistical nightmare. The IEC had telephones and faxes, but no e-mail, website, mobile phones or social media. There was violence, no go areas, Bophuthatswana refused to join the election and blood flowed during a right-wing invasion. ANC guards shot nineteen Inkatha supporters during a march to then Shell House – a month before voting day. The Inkatha Freedom Party joined the election in injury time. Inkatha and ANC supporters were involved in fatal clashes and there were right-wing acts of sabotage.

Eventually the IEC certified the election as “substantially free and fair”: ANC 62,65%, National Party 20,39% and IFP 10,54%. Calm returned, pres. Mandela was inaugurated, we had a new national anthem and symbols and there was a government of national unity with Mr F.W. de Klerk.

Apartheid was the overriding binding force for a broad spectrum of South African and international political parties and pressure groups with ideological and policy differences. A quarter of a century later, apartheid remains the scapegoat for many of the ANC government’s failures, but voices within its ranks are saying that excuse has reached its sell by date. The ANC’s silver anniversary scoreboard has notable successes, but many preventable failures and own goals. In 2019 the political divisions span service delivery, nationalisation, expropriation without compensation, free education and medical care, poverty and inequality – a choice between the rule of law and the rule of self-enrichment without consequence.

In 1994 Mr Mandela was the figure of hope. His message was about reconciliation instead of retribution, cooperation instead of fighting. Twenty-five years later, many yearn for his servant leadership, long discarded by the ruling party. Today, Mandela’s critics call him “a communist and terrorist” or a “sell-out”. In 1994 the ANC was united and without the clear factions responsible for infighting, division, mixed messages and a preoccupation with the party’s interests, rather than country’s needs.

Many South Africans place their hope in pres. Cyril Ramaphosa and consider voting DA for the provincial and ANC in the national poll. His supporters believe a victory will give him a mandate so that the country’s investigative and judicial agencies could act against party members who stole, defrauded and plotted. Awkward questions remain about his own knowledge and quiet compliance as senior member of the ANC inner circle. In a proportional system you do not vote for Ramaphosa, but for the ANC – and its list includes some very questionable candidates. Votes should also remember that a party’s scoreboard and policy are more important than its vocal criticism of competitors.

Independent media, investigative journalists, whistle blowers and pressure groups such as Freedom Under Law, the Helen Suzman Foundation, Right2Know, judicial commissions and other civic voices opened the Pandora’s box of cadre deployment, state capture and self enrichment.

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba duly warns South Africans not place their trust in leaders and individuals, but in strong, independent institutions. South Africa may well have a model constitution, independent media and a solid legal system, but without the will of honourable, competent professionals the checks and balances will not work.

Vyatchelav Molotov, former Russian premier, reminded us: “The problem with free elections is that you never know how they are going to turn out!”

Faced with the great uncertainty and the mountain-sized challenge of pulling off the 1994 election in just four months, IEC chairman Judge Johann Kriegler referred to the upcoming D-day as “an insurmountable opportunity”. When peace and calm returned after the announcement of the results, he quipped: “Maybe we were too stupid to realise it was impossible!”

May these words of wisdom provide a silver lining for the silver anniversary vote on 8 May.

Pieter Cronjé is an independent international consultant. He was communication director and spokesperson for the IEC in 1994.