JOHANNESBURG — The lines at polling places were orderly, the staff well trained and polite, the equipment functional, and the voting results promptly counted and properly transmitted. When the final tally was announced, both winners and losers behaved with grace and equanimity. This was not an election in Western Europe and certainly not in the United States. It happened in South Africa this past week and it gave African democracy a much needed shot in the arm.
To judge from international media reports, African democracy is at best an oxymoron, at worst a poor joke. Indeed, the past few years have produced some dramatic electoral debacles throughout the continent. Kenya’s polls in December 2007 were marred by widespread rigging, which sparked national unrest causing hundreds of deaths and creating hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons.
Earlier in 2007, the continent’s giant, Nigeria, conducted its own messy and opaque elections, bluntly described by the European Union as “not credible”. And one year prior, disputes over primary results in the Democratic Republic of the Congo set off ferocious street battles in the capital, Kinshasa, between the army and an opposition militia. Of course, the dirty and dangerous elections of South Africa’s neighbor Zimbabwe have been common knowledge for years.
None of this happened in South Africa’s elections; no polling booths were set on fire, there were no political assassinations, and, unlike so many other developing countries, the instinctive reaction of the runners-up was not to immediately cry fraud. The Independent Electoral Commission lived up to its name. The security forces, rather than taking sides, actually provided security. Likewise, the media by and large conducted themselves professionally. Even the courts, much maligned of late for their handling of the corruption case against incoming President Jacob Zuma, took a principled decision by ruling that South Africans abroad could also vote. For the fourth time in 15 years, this country has done itself proud.
But while South Africans can hold their heads high, they are not completely alone. Quietly and determinedly, in different parts of the continent, Africans have been building the architecture for peaceful and representative elections. For example, just three months ago, unnoticed by a world obsessed with the troubles in Gaza, Ghana conducted free and fair polls which saw that rarest of African outcomes — an opposition candidate unseating his ruling party rival. Not long ago, Liberians accomplished something even more astonishing by choosing a woman as their president, the first in Africa’s history.
Although still outnumbered by autocracies, other West African nations like Mali and Senegal routinely carry out transparent elections. Perhaps most significantly, various regional bodies have taken unprecedented steps to ensure that democratic development in Africa has both a legal foundation as well as practical support. The African Union recently established a small but active "democracy assistance unit". The Economic Community of West Africa States, too, has its own electoral division and the treaty which established the Southern African Development Community (SADC) specifically commits member states to “human rights, democracy and the rule of law”.
Attending the official announcement of South Africa’s electoral outcome at the high tech results center in Pretoria, I overheard a local political activist remark breathlessly to his companions: “This is a wonderful day; the people have spoken!" Minutes later, the chairperson of the country’s electoral commission gave an emotional speech in which she quoted Thomas Paine on democracy.
Not so many years ago, I would have interpreted such expressions as either wildly naïve or deeply cynical. Today, thanks to committed men and women all over Africa, I believe them.
Christian Hennemeyer is a vice president at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in Washington, D.C. He has lived and worked in Africa for over 20 years.
More GlobalPost dispatches on South Africa: