South African 2016 elections — What are the lessons?

 08 Aug 2016 - 1:26

By Thembisa Fakude

The recent local government elections in South Africa were lapped up by the international media like never before. Why was there such a keen interest in the local government elections? After all, these were not national elections to decide the national leadership and president of the country. There are many reasons for this.
South Africa is the country of Nelson Mandela, an international icon who sacrificed almost three decades of his life in prison in pursuit of freedom for his people.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC), which was formed in 1912 in South Africa, is the oldest political party in Africa. South Africa is also the most thriving democracy with a vibrant civil society in Africa.  
The country has held four national elections — in 1994, 1999, 2009 and 2014. Over the past 21 years of democracy, South Africa have had four presidents — a political milestone in a continent that is still riddled by post election violence, abuse of political tenure and general political and economic instability. South Africa therefore remains a great intrigue to political pessimists and optimists alike.
Recently South Africa has been in the news for the wrong reasons. Xenophobic attacks on foreigners is one of them. However, it is Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, who has kept the country in the international spotlight.
Zuma has been fighting scandals since the beginning of his tenure as the fourth democratically elected President of the Republic of South Africa.
The last scandal is regarded as the Achilles’ heel for a man who once led the intelligence department of the powerful ANC in exile.
The scandal in which millions of public funds were irregularly spent, was uncovered by journalist Mandy Rossouw in December 2009. The government spent 246 million Rands — about $20m at the time — of public funds on “security upgrades” at Zuma’s personal home in Nkandla in Kwa-Zulu Natal province, South Africa.
The subsequent investigations by the Public Protector found that Zuma unduly benefited from the public funds and recommended he pay back part of the money. After procrastination to act on the recommendations, a constitutional court injunction finally forced Zuma to act on the recommendations. He subsequently apologised to the nation. This scandal has led to the decline of the ANC’s support within the rank and file.
The August 3, 2016 municipal elections were by all accounts a referendum for the ruling ANC. The slow manner in which the ANC has responded to the political grievances in the country resulted in the organisation losing control of key areas in South Africa.
The ANC has reduced its political influence in the local governance from 69.4% in May 2011 to just below 54% in 2016. The further humiliation for the ANC came from Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality in the Eastern Cape, South Africa.
This municipality, which is aptly named after Nelson Mandela, is home to most of the past and present leaders of the ANC. The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) won the control of this municipality, the DA received 46.7% of the total votes followed by the ANC at 40.9%. Similarly the ANC struggled to win a clear majority in South Africa’s most important municipalities in Johannesburg and Pretoria.
There is a great deal to be learned from these elections, particularly for the rest of the African continent. The role of the civil society is very important in holding government to account.
African civil societies have the tendency of only participating on the eve of the elections, Africans should encourage a vigilant and active society in order for democracy to thrive in that continent.
The South African Constitution of 2006 provides for the creation of what is best known in South Africa as the Chapter Nine. These institutions named after the chapter in which they feature in the constitution, are provided to support the constitutional democracy in South Africa.
They play an important role in creating an enabling sociopolitical environment in South Africa. Their existence has also managed to give confidence and trust of the constitution and democracy in South Africa.
There are eight Chapter Nine institutions. Most prominent amongst them are the Public Protector and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).
The Public Protector has been involved in the investigation of the extraordinary spending of public funds on “security upgrades” at the personal home of the President Jacob Zuma in Nkandla.
The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has produced successful elections since 1994. The IEC is the only national electoral body in the world that has facilitated elections of other countries.
In conclusion, the political carte blanche in most African countries is by and large encouraged by the inactive civil society. Finally Africans must insist on constitutions that encourage and facilitate a suitable environment for a constructive public participation.

The writer is a Researcher at Directorate Studies Centre, Aljazeera Network.