People show their identity documents prior to voting in the elections. Picture: Skyler Reid

It was unnecessarily defensive of the government to restrict foreign embassies to observing the elections with only their heads of mission, says Peter Fabricius.

International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane announced this to surprised and disappointed diplomats just two weeks before the voting.

Many embassies had already received accreditation for several more diplomats from the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) as far back as February.

That was how it had worked in past elections.

Nkoana-Mashabane’s spokesman, Clayson Monyela, has given three reasons for the change of rules: that large numbers of diplomats would congest polling stations; that all countries would be officially represented at the election anyway, by one of the official election observer missions, from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the AU, the Commonwealth and the UN; and that since the US and Co don’t invite South Africa to observe their elections, why should we go out of our way to invite them to observe ours?

Yet the IEC has not, as far as one can tell, expressed concern about diplomats congesting polling stations. And it is the IEC after all which is supposed to be organising the election – independently, one should add, of the government.

And 400 diplomatic observers spread over 22 263 polling stations – 0.18 diplomats per polling station – could hardly have caused congestion.

Second, though Monyela said the UN had been invited to send an official observer mission, apparently it never did, leaving many countries, including the US, not represented by official observer missions.

The third reason seems to be the real one. It implied that the likes of the US were treating our democracy as inferior and so needing closer scrutiny than theirs.

That’s not quite true either. It is true that US elections, for instance, are not organised centrally by a national authority but by individual states and so there is no system of inviting foreign observers.

But they have observed, nonetheless. In 2004 the then IEC chief Brigalia Bam, the current head Pansy Tlakula and Denis Kadima, head of the South African NGO Eisa, were part of a foreign observer mission organised by the American NGO Global Exchange/Fair Election International to observe the US elections.

They reported that the US electoral system was “in considerable distress”. Confidence in and the equity of the system was “compromised by ambiguities in election standards, partisan oversight and problematic voting equipment”.

Of course American right-wingers were incensed at what they regarded as this invasion of America’s sovereignty and attempt to humiliate the US by global “radically-active leftists”, as Tom de Weese of the American Policy Center put it.

De Weese was particularly incensed that Bam presumed to be sharing with Americans “the democratic innovations and advances occurring around the world… to bring to light the best practices that may benefit the US political system”.

US conservatives have got themselves equally worked up about the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), an organisation of 57 states, which has been sending election observers to the US since 2002.

Last year, Texas Attorney-General Greg Abbott threatened to arrest any foreign observers who tried to enter Texan polling stations in violation of Texan law.

But the OSCE otherwise saw what it wanted to see and completed its overall mission successfully.

Trying to restrict diplomats from observing our elections makes us look a bit nutty, like Greg Abbott.

The real reason for the historic imbalance in election observation is simply that South Africa has not so far shown much interest in observing US elections.

Maybe we should organise an observer mission to the next one.

* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.

The Star