The election process was technically flawed but, in spite of lack of infrastructure and other problems, a successful compromise was reached between the various parties, writes Steven Friedman.
When an election result in a society at war with itself is exactly what some academics say it must be to stop the conflict, it is fair to ask whether votes were counted or agreed by negotiation.
Which explains why our first democratic election turned out how some experts said it should.
We often romanticise democracy’s beginnings: the first vote, in 1994, is remembered with great fondness.
But, while the people’s conduct on those days was inspiring, the way the ballot was run and votes were counted was not: the election had to be saved by a bargain between the major parties.
Its lesson is not how efficient we can be as a nation but what can be achieved if we bargain and compromise.
Throughout the negotiations which produced the election, the ANC insisted that it wanted decisions taken by representatives of the majority, while the National Party and its allies wanted them negotiated between the parties.
The election settled the battle in favour of – both. Everyone took part and the most popular party won: this gave it credibility among citizens.
But the fact that it was negotiated between the parties prevented rebellion and allowed democracy to begin.
My knowledge of the election was first-hand: I was head of the Independent Election Commission’s (IEC) information analysis department. It was our job to make sense of reports from election monitors so the IEC would be aware of threats to the election.
But we were also asked to advise it on a test of a free and fair election.
We came to the conclusion that beyond the obvious – every adult needed the right to vote, and all votes must be counted accurately – there was no formula for whether an election was free or fair.
Even if an election was run perfectly, it would achieve nothing if the losers did not accept the result (winners, of course, always accept the outcome).
And so the test was whether the IEC could win the confidence of all parties; negotiation with and between political parties was far more important than running the ‘perfect’ election.
Although this was not a popular view within the IEC, it described exactly what happened.
The election was a technical shambles – which was hardly a surprise. No one here had ever run an election for everyone: the IEC was staffed by lawyers, academics, political activists – and one or two election managers.
We had no voters rolls and, in places neglected by apartheid, no infrastructure.
And so huge queues formed on election day and it took some people days to vote.
The IEC was staffed not by neutral officials but by activists and sympathisers of all the parties (there were then, at most, a dozen neutral South Africans). Until a week before, the Inkatha Freedom Party refused to participate, an ever-present threat to the election: after it joined, no questions were asked about how the election was run in its strongholds.
(The IFP entered so late that it could be included only by attaching a sticker to the ballot paper: some stickers were not attached, propelling us into crisis mode).
All this ensured an election beset by so many problems that, by the time the count began, our desks were piled with allegations of wrongdoing by all major parties – the ANC, NP and IFP.
Each had loyalists who were accused of using their position as election officials to influence the result. Given the sheer volume of complaints, a result accepted by everyone seemed impossible.
The problems worsened when the results began to appear. At one point, computer hackers were detected adding votes to the NP and right-wing parties. Once that was stopped, the count became increasingly implausible – in some places, 800 percent more people than the estimated adult population voted: the three major parties accused each other of cheating.
The IEC’s staff quickly began to polarise: people who days earlier had been engaged in a common task quickly reverted to their pre-IEC identities and rallied behind their parties.
Again, a result accepted by all seemed impossible.
The first inkling of a rescue came when areas of the IEC building were closed to staff – because, we were told, senior officials of the major parties were meeting there.
The second came when the commission seemed to lose interest in our reports: I recall telling a senior commissioner that we had found more problems in the results – he looked distracted and responded as if he was being told that dinner was delayed.
From then on, the commission did not ask us for analysis.
Why? Surely because the election’s fate was no longer in the IEC’s hands: the party negotiators were bargaining the result. Certainly, the figures which magically appeared were convenient.
The ANC won but did not receive the two-thirds majority which would allow it to write a new constitution. The NP achieved just over 20 percent and so was entitled to a deputy president.
The IFP won KwaZulu-Natal.
All the parties’ complaints against each other instantly melted away.
This outcome seemed scripted by academics who had argued beforehand that we would have peace only if there was something in the result for all major parties.
In reality, it must have been bargained by the parties.
What were the “real” results? No one will ever know: the circumstances made it impossible to figure out an accurate result.
The election was saved because all three parties had grievances against each other – so there were no clear “good” or “bad” guys – and because all knew that the alternative to a deal was a conflict which could have become a civil war.
The 1994 ballot was a technical disaster but a political triumph.
Its technical failings meant that it did not produce an accurate result: but it did yield an outcome with which all could live and which made change possible.
So it may be a model for us after all – for it shows that, in this society, working out compromises may well be much more important than getting the technicalities right.
* Professor Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.