South Africa was on the brink of change in the 1990s. Five decades of apartheid, a system of institutionalised racial segregation, was finally coming to an end.

The release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners had been ordered by President FW de Klerk in 1990. Bilateral talks had taken place between the National Party (NP) and the African National Congress (ANC) and multi-party negotiations with liberation movements were underway.

The electoral system that would govern the 1994 elections was negotiated at Codesa. These negotiations led to the establishment of a temporary Electoral Commission. The task of this commission was to administer the first non-racial elections in South Africa, a monumental challenge.

Under the apartheid regime, the Department of Home Affairs had managed elections. However, due to a lack of trust from political parties contesting in the 1994 election, an entirely new commission was set up.

The commission was led by Justice Johann Kriegler. It comprised of 11 South Africans and 5 international advisors. It began functioning in January 1994. Political parties gave the commission four months to organise an election and a date of 27 April 1994 was set.

The consequences of a failed election were dire. Violence was rife and there were fears of civil war. The task at hand was a logistical nightmare. Although help was elicited from Home Affairs, the department had experience of holding elections for an estimated three million white voters. However, now, the electorate had expanded to approximately 18 million voters.

The legacy of apartheid meant that the commission found it difficult to decide where to place voting stations as there was limited knowledge on possible voting facilities in townships and rural South Africa. Furthermore, there was no voters’ roll, as time constraints did not enable the commission to compile one. In addition to that, most potential voters did not have identity documents.

Amidst tremendous difficulties, the commission meandered itself through. Election day came and voting stations were packed. Voting stations ran out of ballot papers, ballot boxes and ink. Additionally, election days were extended for four days to accommodate the incredible voter turn-out. The first democratic election was a success. The first democratic government of South Africa was elected and it was the end of an era.

Twenty-five years later, present day South Africa boasts of having one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. It is a leader in free, fair and democratic elections on the continent. It has relatively strong institutions that are able to check and balance the executive. Moreover, it has one of the strongest economies in Africa and prides itself in being one of its economic hubs.

Tomorrow, on May 8, the sixth national elections are taking place. Naturally, the Electoral Commission (IEC) has had a fair share of logistical challenges leading up to this election. The most prominent being that of retrieving addresses of registered voters on the voters’ roll.

This undertaking was a result of the 2016 Electoral Commission v Mhlope Constitutional Court judgment. The judgment instructed the IEC to collect available addresses of registered voters. This matter originated after independent candidates in a Tlokwe by-election challenged the freeness and fairness of an election after finding out that voters had been registered in the wrong districts. The matter was brought before the Electoral Court before going to the Constitutional Court.

It resulted in the IEC being given 18 months to fix the voters’ roll ahead of national elections to include addresses of registered voters, failing which, the voters’ roll would be declared invalid.

Although we are now in 2019, statistics indicate that an estimated 3.6 million South Africans still live in informal settlements. This made this task particularly challenging. By the time the deadline dictated by the court arrived in June 2019, the IEC had secured approximately 72% of addresses.

The IEC applied for an extension of this deadline and this was granted. A deadline of 30 November 2019 was set and a suspension on the invalidity of the voters’ roll was established until then.

Our democracy and its challenges have evolved in the past 25 years. Revelations of corruption, a lack of service delivery and broken promises have contributed to declining voter apathy. The registration rate has dropped from 86.9% in 1994 to 74% of eligible voters in 2019.

9.8 million eligible voters are not registered to vote and approximately six million of them are below the age of 30. This reflects a global shift of young people disengaging from formal electoral processes and expressing their political persuasions in different fora.

Our technological age has allowed the IEC to simplify its processes and to create greater awareness around elections. Adversely, the IEC is plagued by the threat of cyber-attacks and the consequences of fake news.

Nonetheless, we are a few days away from elections and 48 political parties will be contesting. The IEC has remained an impartial institution that has successfully administered five national elections. Beyond and during these elections it is important to monitor the IEC. However, it is equally important to ensure that it is adequately supported as an institution mandated to safeguard our democracy.

– Farai Savanhu is an electoral systems researcher at My Vote Counts. My Vote Counts is a non-profit company founded to improve the accountability, transparency and inclusiveness of elections and politics in the Republic of South Africa. We work to ensure that the political and electoral systems are open, fair and accountable to the public and that they remain relevant in the changing South African socio-political context.

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