Lest we forget: South Africa’s first democratic election, 21 years on


“The 1994 election succeeded despite shortcomings because there was the political will to make it work.  South Africans would not have accepted the result if it did not reflect their will.  The negotiated evolution was ripe, the hourglass was running out and the election was the last chance to find peace.  We were in it together and had to break through to greener pastures.”

These are the words of Former Constitutional Court Judge Johann Kriegler, chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission in 1994, in a personal interview I did for Media24’s BY, twenty years after we had worked together.

“We have come a long way. In South Africa’s 2014 election people were upset about defamatory text messages.  In 1994 we feared that we would send each other to our graves with AK 47’s.”

The Judge warned that it would not be an orderly European or Scandanavian election, but an African election “We will vote under trees and in the open but we will vote.”

At half past eleven one night, his phone rang.  “Judge, this is Mandela.  We understand your problems and we support you.” Thereafter Mr Mandela would always greet the Judge in his home language, Afrikaans.

Before the election – in the span of only four months – there were several “dark hours” for the IEC, crucial moments that required innovation, guts, hard work and committed leadership:

1.     The IEC had to move from its original (unsuitable) headquarters in Kempton Park to downtown Johannesburg.

2.     In February 1994 the IEC discovered that the list of voting stations prepared by the Department of Home Affairs could not be used and had to be redone. (10 500 voting stations!)

3.     In March 1994 the IEC was informed there would be two ballots instead of just one – for the national and provincial legislatures.  This doubled the voting and counting process and had a huge impact on logistics

4.     On the second day of voting, ballot papers on the East Rand, a powder keg of political violence, ran out.  Emergency supplies had to be sent.

5.     Some of the vote counters went on strike for more money.  Mediators were dispatched to get them back to work.

6.     The counting process at the Nasrec counting centre in Johannesburg (for 20% of the country’s votes!) was delayed because certain procedures had not and could not be followed.  The IEC intervened with emergency directives.

7.     The IEC’s data centre was compromised when voting totals of certain parties were adjusted.  It was sealed off and teams of independent auditors corrected the vote count. The culprit(s) were never found.

8.     On 5 May 1994, the day before the election results were announced, all of the major political parties demanded that the IEC adjust vote totals as a result of alleged irregularities.  They threatened legal action.   

Judge Kriegler’s response?  “Bring me the evidence” To date no one has.

“No election is perfect, but there was no significant meddling and tampering. Subsequent elections confirmed the 1994 voting patterns.  It is also a tall tale that political parties engineered the result.  Dozens of people would have had to be involved in such a plot and, to date, no such evidence has been offered.”

Pieter Cronjé was the spokesperson and Director of Media and Public Relations for the IEC in 1994.