Learning from Madiba’s enclave

F  OR to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances us the freedom of others — Nelson Mandela.

On 30th July 2016, I left the shores of Nigeria for South Africa, just to take few days rest away from the stress of the job.   This has been customary of me at least once in a year and usually picking a country I might not have visited in the past.  This time round, South Africa was my choice – reason – since the demise of apartheid policy and minority white/racist regime, I was curious to see how both the whites and blacks (if in any way the texture of our skin is black) do co-habit.

Having arrived Johannesburg – which residents prefer its short form as Joburg – the largest city in the country, late in the evening, on Saturday, I kept indoor throughout Sunday with my spouse because of the stress of air travel.  On Monday, August 8, I was anxious to read national dailies and moved round the city for sight seen.  Interestingly, the biggest news in town was the feverish preparations for municipal elections.  The election was scheduled for Wednesday, August 3, 2016.

As a student of Comparative Politics, I quickly forgot that I was in that country to rest. I picked interest in monitoring the election processes in pronto.   Two things struck me with their system.  In Nigeria, we hold elections on Saturdays with full restriction of movements.  In Madibo’s enclave, the election day was Wednesday with public holiday but no restriction on movements across the country.  The concomitant effect based on my observation is that a number of potential voters went shopping spree and recreation rather than exercising their franchise.  Perhaps to dissuade apathy, voting hours was between 7am and 7.00 p.m.  In a number of urban voting stations, turn-out was high in the evening, with those coming from work places.  This resulted into ‘serpentine’ queues in cold weather. Though voting processes took less than 15 minutes per voter when they reached voting stations; but apathy was still visible in some places despite the holiday.

Nonetheless, South Africa’s federal system exhibited glaring variations from Nigeria’s federal structure.  First, Local Government election took place in all the provinces and municipals simultaneously across the country.  Secondly, Local Governments in Nigeria are not perceived as ‘locale’ of power because they are far away to autonomy as a tier of government.  The 1999 Constitution as amended made them an appendage of state governments; completely under legal supervision by the state Houses of Assembly.  The debilitating effect of that arrangement is known to us all. Most governors fiddle with their allocations and administratively deal with them within the purview of their whims and caprices.  No doubt, the South African model actually made the third tier to be a training ground for democracy.  The zeal put into the exercise was, indeed, unprecedented.

One other juxtaposition that worth noting is that of tenure;  while the life span of elected local government functionaries in Nigeria is three years, they govern for five years in South Africa.   The beauty of this is that it reduces both cost and frequency of elections at the municipal level.  Though where you have a demagogue in power, corrupt or lackadaisical elected officials, and the system becomes beleaguered for five solid years.

A unique feature of the local election and peradventure the electoral law in South Africa is provision for special voters.  The law allows those that apply for special consideration to vote before the actual voting day.  This was two days before the D-day.  Beginning from Monday, as many as 719,222 special voters commenced voting.  They were the aged and physically challenged, including those who may have genuine reasons not to be available on voting day.  This was allowed in the 22,612 voting points across the country.  Nigeria’s electoral law and system do not make any provision for special cases.  Both the aged and people with disabilities compete for space and attention here. It is amusing that most of our public buildings do not take into consideration the plight of the disables.  The total number of municipalities is 2,013 in all. Whereas in Nigeria, with gargantuan population size of close to 150 million and large expanse of land, total number of local governments recognised by law is 774. In essence, it may be expedient to take a dim view of  local government creation in Nigeria. With population growth, it is better to expand the space for grassroots development. The United States of America that we ape as a model of both democratic and federal state, there are well over 10,000 local government areas that take care of municipal governments.

Be that as it may, both the military and South African police were deeply involved in the process to maintaining law and order.  The police was saddled with the responsibility of transporting ballot boxes and papers to and fro the voting stations, while the military kept vigil in volatile areas. No doubt, election is still war-like in Africa.

Total number of registered voters amounted to 26 million, which was slightly above the previous election by about 1.5 million; this truly enhances political consciousness.  South Africans register from the age of 16, but they cannot exercise their franchise until the age of 18 years.  Uniqueness with the South African system, which is cost saving, is the fact that voters do not need voters’ card, which was even non-existent.  To vote, all potential voters signify their intention by registering to vote before the election.  What you require on the D-day is the National identity card or International passport.  More so that the name was already on the voters register; the voter must have also signified which province he/she intends to vote.

Nevertheless, South Africa’s electoral system allows independent candidacy.  In all, 858 independent candidates participated in the election.  Most of them were African National Congress (ANC) members who felt frustrated with the way party leaders handled the party primaries. The major advantage of this innovation is the opportunity for professionals who may be scared of dabbling into the murky waters of partisan politics to throw their hats into the ring. No doubt, it is high time that Nigerians got liberated too.

(To be continued tomorrow)

  • Dr Ojo is an associate professor of comparative politics, UNILORIN, and currently the Chief of Staff to Oyo State Governor.