South African National and Provincial Elections: Lessons for Zimbabwe

By ZESN 

Since 1994, South Africa has undergone four national elections with remarkable success and free from the incidents that often mar elections in much of Africa.  Perhaps, there are some lessons that may be drawn on how the conduct of South African electoral stakeholders contributed to the strengthening of election integrity in that country.

South Africa has a parliamentary system of government and uses a proportional representation electoral system. The President of South Africa is elected by the National Assembly after the Election and people vote for political parties and not individuals. South Africans went to the polls to choose representatives to the National Assembly and provincial legislatures on 8 May 2019.

The article highlights a few examples from the South African elections for consideration by Zimbabwean stakeholders for future elections.

Political Environment

Generally, the elections were regarded by those who observed them as a peaceful expression of South Africans’ political preferences. There were a few exceptions, which related to isolated incidents of violence in North West and Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces. South Africans must be applauded for successfully conducting an election which was regarded as free, fair and credible by both domestic and international observers, despite obvious differences, robust electioneering and the fact that 76 political parties participated in these elections, with 48 contesting the National Ballot.

The stakes were very high in the 2019 elections but the campaigns were not violent. A number of factors can be attributed to this, including the maturity of political actors and their supporters, who deliberately chose to conduct issue-based campaigns, including participating in a number of political debates at the provincial and national level.

South Africa has a robust Electoral Code of Conduct which empowers the Electoral Commission of South Africa’s (IEC) and the Electoral Court to rein into political parties and individuals who may breach the code. The Electoral Court can, among other things, impose a fine, stop a political party from campaigning in an area, de-register a political party, and impose a fine of up to ZAR200,000 or sentence and offender to serve a prison term of up to 10 years. The code serves as an effective deterrent for political mischief during the campaign season because of the clarity on conduct that is allowed/not allowed during the campaign and also because of the impartial application of the Code by the Electoral Court. In Zimbabwe the Code of Conduct for political parties exists but is not enforced. This is one of the issues cited by both local and international election Observer Missions to Zimbabwe’s 2018 Harmonized Elections.

Special Voting

On the African Continent, South Africa leads in the provision of wide range mechanisms that allow those who are unable to cast their votes on Election Day to participate in elections. Deliberate efforts to enfranchise voters were made, including allowing South Africans living abroad to vote. The IEC received a record 30 532 applications from South Africans living abroad to cast their vote at the country’s 121 foreign missions. At least 29 334 were approved and the expatriates were able to cast their ballots on April 27.

Special voting mechanisms were also available for South African citizens who could not travel to their voting stations because of infirmities, disability, or pregnancy. Two days before the General elections (6 and 7 May), those who qualified for the special vote were allowed to cast their votes at polling stations designated for this purpose. In addition, polling officials visited the homes of those who had registered for home election visits. This means pregnant women, voters in nursing homes and disabled persons who successfully applied for the home visit were able to cast their votes in the comfort of their homes. Special voting in Zimbabwe lags behind as citizens in the diaspora, in prisons, and hospitals are not able to participate in the country’s elections despite the Constitution of Zimbabwe conferring this right to all citizens who would have reached the legal age of majority.

Results Transmission

Zimbabwe can take a cue from South Africa to further improve its results transmission and collection system. Observer reports to Zimbabwe’s 2018 Harmonized Elections noted the need for a more transparent results transmission system where presidential results from each polling station are transmitted directly to the national results collations center and transmitted in real time. Furthermore, changes to results should be made in the presence of observers and party agents. The South African results transmission system conforms to open election data principles which require an Election Management Body to share election information in a manner that is timely and easy to understand. Unlike elections in Zimbabwe, South African stakeholders expressed satisfaction with their results tabulation process.  In pursuit of transparency in results transmission, The Electoral Commission in South Africa established a National Results Operation Centre (ROC) where media houses, political party representatives and local, regional and international observers were granted access to observe the results collation process.

Electoral Dispute Resolution

The degree to which the Election Management Body or the State is able to effectively resolve electoral disputes has a bearing on the integrity of an election. Zimbabwe needs to strengthen the existing formal and informal electoral dispute resolution mechanisms by among other things institutionalizing Multi-Party Liaison Committees (MPLCs). Officials with the authority to make decisions, such as the ZEC Chairperson and the Commissioner-General of the Police, should attend the MPLC meetings to hear the parties’ concerns, expedite resolution for any issues raised. With regards to the Electoral Court, there is need to establish time limits for the adjudication of pre-election petitions and a framework for proceedings that are filed at the High Court and Electoral Courts. In addition, judgments should be rendered before Election Day and allegations of electoral malpractice should be investigated promptly, thoroughly, and effectively. In South Africa, Party Liaison Committees and panelist mediators were quite effective as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism. Party liaison committees were established at the national, provincial and municipal levels to deal with any low-level conflict or issues of concern that arose throughout the electoral cycle.

Conclusion

As Zimbabwe’s electoral stakeholders continue to reflect on the conduct of the 2018 harmonized elections, the lessons drawn from South Africa’s general elections serve as suggestions that may inform the ongoing efforts to further strengthen our electoral processes.

– This article was published in the Daily News on Sunday on 26.05.19