Africa can learn from SA’s electoral context

A flawed electoral process, including a context of instability, is a major obstacle to investment and development, says the writer. Picture: Jacques Naude/Independent Newspapers

A flawed electoral process, including a context of instability, is a major obstacle to investment and development, says the writer. Picture: Jacques Naude/Independent Newspapers

Published May 25, 2024


Willie Chinyamurindi

May is celebrated as Africa Month.

And on May 29, South Africa goes to the polls. Interestingly enough, a total of 17 African countries will undergo elections in 2024 alone; a busy year awaits the continent.

Historically, elections in Africa have evoked mixed feelings. Often, the same scenario characterises the state of elections on the continent – low voter turnout, election-related violence and the tearing away of the democratic cloak.

In addition, rampant vote buying has been framed as an issue of concern in several African countries.

A flawed electoral process, including a context of instability, is a major obstacle to investment and development. On two fronts, the South African electoral context leading to the election can offer a valuable window of learning for the African continent.

First, South Africa allows those citizens living abroad the right to vote.

Figures show the anticipated participation of just under 20 000 citizens living in 101 countries around the world.

The issue of allowing the diaspora to vote has received mixed sentiment on the African continent. Some countries are even warming up to the idea as a passageway for constitutional and electoral reforms. This has been evident in the positive attitude around the diaspora vote in countries such as Senegal, Botswana and Mozambique.

The diaspora vote is not even up for discussion in other African countries.

There is an acknowledgement of a higher number of African nationals residing in Europe, the US and other more affluent African countries.

In allowing for the diaspora vote, a cursory understanding could allow for diaspora participation through voting which has the potential to disrupt the local political landscape through the decisions of people who are not even residents in that country.

For instance, in Zimbabwe, the diaspora vote through what is referred to as the postal vote is reserved only for those outside the country while in the service of the state. The South African experience of allowing for the diaspora vote offers useful insight to other African countries into how a model of diaspora voting can be implemented.

Second, South Africa has done well in widening coverage of the political parties taking part in the upcoming elections. Allowing for media coverage assists voters to improve their decision-making as a lead-up to the voting.

A few media houses have introduced “town hall” style debates in which political parties can share their manifesto before a live audience.

Community radio stations have also joined in, airing content of political parties while also giving voice to local community leaders as aspirant leaders.

Despite seeing more of the range of political parties in mainstream media, some concerns still loom on the horizon. For instance, Media Monitoring Africa notes the prevalence of misinformation and disinformation on social media as a threat to democratic elections. The lack of monitoring on social media potentially exists as a challenge and offers no cover for potential voters.

On the continent, the issue of media participation in the electoral process is also dividing. Take, for instance, the role of the media in elections in Angola, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Often, media participation in these African countries during elections is one-sided, favouring the ruling elite. The range of coverage is usually limited to individuals rather than issues affecting communities and those featuring as part of electoral coverage.

In some African countries, the existence of a supine media is often politically aligned. Ironically, despite concerns raised earlier around misinformation from social media, the presence of social media gives voice to those participants who may not receive coverage on mainstream platforms.

The real tragedy for the African continent is our inability to continue not to learn from each other. South Africa is by no means a perfect country, but one that is progressive in some cases.

Our best foot forward is to draw parallels between those case examples of success, especially on the electoral front. This can serve as helpful inspiration, especially for those who may appear to be stalling.

Chinyamurindi is a professor at the University of Fort Hare and writes in his personal capacity.

Cape Times