ASG Senior Counselor Ambassador Gips' op-ed on the upcoming South Africa elections

Two Decades of Democracy

South Africa has come a long way, but faces big challenges as voters head to the polls.

South Africa goes to the polls on Wednesday.

US News and World Report

By: Don Gips

South African voters head to the polls today for the fifth democratic national elections since the country’s 1994 transition to majority rule, an occasion that allows us to reflect on how far South Africa has come in cementing democratic progress. South Africa faced massive challenges on the eve of its first democratic elections in April 1994. From Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 until those first elections, widespread political violence left an estimated 14,000 people dead. Right-wing extremists and apartheid government forces sought to undermine the process and fuel ethnic rivalries until the final hour.

But in the end, those elections were a resounding success, with South Africans uniting behind a brighter future as a multiracial democracy, electing Mandela and his African National Congress to unify the country.

Tomorrow’s election, like those since 1994, will most likely be quite uneventful. Citizens of all races will line up in an orderly fashion to cast their votes in town halls, municipal buildings, tents and other structures, much like anywhere else in the world. Turnout is expected to be in the 70 percent range. Voters will wear shirts bearing the ANC’s logo, but — relieved from intimidation and political violence reminiscent of 1994 — they will also wear those of the Democratic Alliance and other minority parties. The country’s Independent Electoral Commission will conduct the voting and counting in a transparent fashion. If there are disputes over results, South Africa’s independent judiciary will be well placed to address them, while its free and professional press will surely spotlight any allegations of wrongdoing.

Tomorrow’s polls also give South Africans the opportunity to reflect on the ANC’s mixed performance. The ANC inherited a government hobbled by massive debt, stagnant economic growth, and a structure disproportionately designed to serve 10 percent of the population at the expense of the largely unserved, non-white 90 percent. In 20 years, the ANC has made impressive progress toward addressing these challenges. South Africa paid its debts, and with deft macroeconomic governance has engineered steady — if unspectacular — growth. The government has built more than 3 million houses for its poorest citizens and dramatically increased access to electricity, clean water, education and other social services. Further, the government has created a social safety net for millions of citizens from scratch, an unparalleled accomplishment.

That said, huge challenges remain. While the lives of South Africa’s poor have improved, much progress is needed. The government has struggled to implement an economic model that encourages growth while promoting greater equality. Strikes and protests threaten to cripple the economy. Unemployment continues, with a quarter of the population out of work, and more than 50 percent of young workers unemployed. Improving the quality of education may be the most daunting challenge, as these unemployed workers lack the skills needed to compete in South Africa’s globally integrated economy.

Lastly, South Africa has more than 6 million citizens infected with HIV and AIDS, more than any country in the world, although the government, with the help of our President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program, has made great strides in stabilizing this crisis.

Polls show the ANC and President Jacob Zuma winning, although these elections are anticipated to be more competitive than any in the past. The opposition Democratic Alliance, which governs Western Cape province and Cape Town, is expected to make gains on the back of its solid governance reputation and its attacks on growing corruption within the ANC. Left of the ANC, the newly-formed Economic Freedom Fighters, led by the ANC’s disgraced former youth leader, is generating significant attention for its aggressively redistributionist platform.

While the ANC still capitalizes on its role as South Africa’s liberation party, South Africa’s savvy voters are increasingly taking their cues from performance rather than reputation. Tomorrow, the first “born free” voters will head to the polls, young people with no memories of apartheid but high expectations of the future. With more than 40 percent of the population 20 or younger, the ANC will increasingly face pressures to perform. Such competition is the mark of a healthy democracy, and tomorrow, South Africa will take another meaningful step down the road to democratic consolidation.

Twenty years ago, Mandela set South Africa on a course to prove to his people, and to the world, that the dreams of a democratic, rainbow nation were real and that uniting was the antidote to decades of horror under apartheid. Today, South Africa is struggling with the challenges of realizing that vision, but, if they can, they will serve as a role model for countries across the continent and the globe.

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