International Papers

Hooray for Boring Elections

South African democracy comes of age.

“Boring” was the South African press’s verdict on the nation’s third democratic general election, which drew millions of people into orderly lines outside polling stations on Wednesday. The Sowetan echoed the collective yawn, writing that “with the polls largely free of any significant problems, analysts promptly described the polls as the most boring election South Africa has had.” This Dayreported that when a gust of wind rattled a rural polling station like “a stampede of horses … the handful of voters outside the hall looked around, startled, then relaxed as they realized the cause of the racket. And that was the most exciting thing that happened at this polling station,” in a rural area it dubbed “Dullsville.”

Although the final count is not yet in, the ruling African National Congress is expected to win a landslide victory, pitching President Thabo Mbeki into office for a second five-year term. If the ANC comes away with a two-thirds majority, Mbeki would have the legal ammunition to alter the constitution to allow him a third term, if he so wishes, though he has vowed not to. By Thursday afternoon local time, the ANC had garnered nearly 68 percent of the vote, with its closest opponent, the Democratic Alliance, coming in at 15.5 percent.

Unlike the last two elections, lines moved quickly and smoothly at most of South Africa’s 17,000 polling stations, with a few hiccups in the poorer black townships. Business Day noted that “the long, snaking voting queue occupies a special place in the psychology of the collective South African experience, immortalized in the aerial photographs of the 1994 election, which seemed to symbolize poignantly the pent-up desire for democracy. Now long queues have become a bit of a pain. Thankfully, they have also become, in this election, less frequent.”

Some of the most significant polling infractions included political parties “coercing” people out of queues with snacks, the theft of 20 ballots by two voting officials, and “[women who] were being turned away for wearing nail polish, presumably because it would interfere with the ink used to indicate that a person had voted,” according to the Sowetan, a Johannesburg daily.

Despite the dead calm, a few isolated waves rocked the elections. The most serious disruption took place in South Africa’s rural farming areas. The Star reported that conservative white farmers attempted to deny the vote to hundreds of black farm laborers. According to the Star, the workers “were threatened with dismissal if they voted.”

Feathers were also ruffled when the ANC’s old rival the Inkatha Freedom Party said a “dark cloud” was looming over the elections in KwaZulu-Natal Province and accused the ANC of fraud and intimidation, claims dismissed by the Independent Electoral Commission. Some 20,000 security forces were deployed to secure the province, which was wracked by violence on Election Day 1994. A handful of killings were reported in the province in the past weeks, but it is not known if they were politically motivated.

Many pundits saluted the peaceful process as a sign that democracy has taken firm root. This Day reported that one of South Africa’s most famous voters, Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was delighted after voting. “Most countries degenerate into dictatorships after their first elections. We are disproving that. We are taking it in our stride,” he said.

While fears of widespread voter apathy were dashed, turnout has indeed dropped since the last general election. According to This Day, about three-quarters of the 20.6 million registered voters were expected to cast their ballots, down from 89.5 percent in 1999. Still, the paper reported that analysts think this is a positive thing, comparing with the low turnout in the European Union. “These voting patterns showed that South Africa [is] becoming a normal democracy.”