Judging the Fairness of South Africa's Election


What would constitute a "free and fair" election in South Africa?

The determination that next week's election is "free and fair" must take into consideration standards issued by the Independent Electoral Commission for technical procedures of voting. Many of these are standard determinations regarding such things as the level of violence and intimidation, degree of access to the balloting stations, the performance of voters in marking ballots and the degree of corruption in the handling and counting of ballots.

However, this determination is important because it is linked to the credibility of the process that is bringing the new government into existence. Ultimately, the judgment of whether the election was "free and fair" must be made against the conditions that brought it into existence and the political environment within which it is taking place.

To begin with, the difficulties of structuring the election process have ensured that campaigning commenced rather late, to the point that only recently have the rules been settled, most parties certified to participate and their manifestoes issued. Even in early March, with the election less than two months away, parties did not have financing, and many voters still had not received voter education.

By comparison, the American election cycle lasts at least one year and, depending on the candidate, can be much longer. As a result of the short cycle in South Africa, major parties such as the African National Congress and the Nationalist Party, which have had access to much greater financial and technical resources, have campaigned the most intensively. And while the other 25 parties have made a valiant attempt, they have been largely unable to mobilize themselves as quickly.

Second, everyone is undoubtedly aware that as the election proceeds on one track, the far more important track is that of political negotiations between the ANC, the government and the Freedom Alliance, which is made up of political elements opposed to the multiracial elections. The drama of these negotiations has competed with the drama of the elections in a way that has made it difficult for campaigns to receive normal coverage from the media, the recent debate between Nelson Mandela and President F. W. de Klerk being an important exception.

The public and press were so focused on the negotiations rather than the campaign because if talks failed there was the possibility of civil war as relations became even more violent. At least, the lack of agreement could lead to a flawed political consensus if key elements were not part of the process. With the agreement last week of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party to participate in the elections, chances seem good for both reduction of violence and for achieving political consensus.

Reaching agreement with Inkatha required the government and African National Congress to understand the situation beyond the easy label of "tribal politics.

In my own book, "Black Presidential Politics in America," I suggest that minority parties often practice a politics of leverage with dominant parties to achieve their objectives. They find the pressure points in the system and make their demands when they cannot be ignored.

In fact, Jesse Jackson practiced this kind of politics within the Democratic Party coalition, initiating intense bargaining with Democratic presidential candidates -- Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 -- as a precondition for supporting them the general elections. As Mr. Jackson's deputy, I was involved in these events and was greatly amused by the questions coming from the press: "What does Jesse want?" "Is )) he only a spoiler in the process?"

One heard these same questions with respect to the Inkatha leader, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The surest case that he was playing for political advantage, as in the American example, and not tribal warfare is the resolution of the dispute within the political process.

A third issue is the enormous complexity of the process, involving not only the long cycle of multiparty negotiations, but what they produced in terms of the structures for the interim government, the constitutional framework and the election process. Each of these aspects was difficult to set in motion, requiring the mobilization of expertise, hard choices, mature compromises, considerable courage and other things that, at times, challenged the credibility of the entire enterprise. And although each achievement was flawed, they would appear to provide a collective foundation for future efforts.

Yet many potential voters are skeptical, even cynical, about the outcome of elections, because the apartheid racial pecking order has made them fearful of living in a country ruled by a black majority government, or because some factions did not achieve their objectives of autonomy, or because of reservations about remaining flaws in the process. Nevertheless, the ANC and other parties have proven that there is a basis for confidence in the future by the fact that they have managed the complexity of this process in a manner as productive as possible under the circumstances.

Therefore, the judgment of the fairness of the elections must consider these unimaginable obstacles inherent in this attempt at democratic government. Here, the political evaluation is not whether the outcome was perfect, but did it contribute positively to the legitimization of the new government. If it does, then the next stage can proceed with adequate confidence that nation-building toward a new South Africa is an attainable objective.

Ronald Walters is chairman of the department of political science at Howard University.

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