This year, almost a third of African countries will hold general or presidential elections. Many of these will take place in Southern Africa, including South Africa next month, Botswana and Mozambique in October and Namibia in November.

The conduct and credibility of these elections will serve as a clear indicator of the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC’s) success or failure in delivering on one of its core mandates as an intergovernmental organisation — to oblige its member states to adhere to best democratic election practices.

Supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) political party gather at a tent in front of a voting station during the nationwide voter registration campaign ahead of the 2024 general elections in Soweto on November 18, 2023. Photo by Luca Sola/AFP

Although SADC has made some strides in promulgating best election practices among its member states, it has a limited capacity to effectively resolve political crises emerging from election disputes or instances of rigging, as Zimbabwe’s highly problematic national elections in August illustrate.

This limited capacity is a reminder of the critical need for transparent, responsive and accountable governance institutions that work towards achieving quality grassroots and national-level democracy.

Ultimately, it is the electorate

that should be empowered to

hold its leadership accountable throughout the election cycle.

As part of its fundamental objective of promoting the development of democratic practices in member states, SADC has instituted important measures encouraging the observance of universal human rights and citizen participation in democratic processes.

The SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2004) is part of the regional body’s efforts at obliging member states to adhere to the best election practices.

All SADC members have formally adopted the principles and guidelines, which call on them to hold regular, free and fair elections.

Although many do hold regular, free and fair elections, some continue to fall short. Zimbabwe’s elections last year, for example, were widely condemned by citizens and the international community.

They also illustrated some of the increasingly sophisticated techniques authoritarian states use to rig elections.

“Free and fair” democratic elections and other “democratic processes” often provide a smokescreen behind which to advance authoritarian objectives.

It is in such instances that normative frameworks provide a critical guide for  the electorate and broader civil society to demand accountability and push for credible elections.

Given the increasingly sophisticated manner in which authoritarian governments can capture or subvert elections to their advantage, SADC should draw on Article 5 of the SADC Treaty (1992).

This advances a more holistic and substantive concept of democracy placing more value on economic inclusion, corruption eradication and social equality.

But SADC’s capacity to effectively deliver on this mandate has been eroded by the increasingly autocratic liberation movements that became governments post-independence.

Some of these have held regular, flawed elections that disregarded presidential term limits while impoverishing their nations through endemic corruption and plunder.

The plight of the region’s socially disadvantaged has been exacerbated by a lack of inclusivity, chronic economic decline, escalating unemployment and deepening inequality and poverty.

After Zimbabwe’s disputed election and apparent deadlock in domestic remedies, the electorate had, for a long time, pinned its expectations, albeit misplaced, on a decisive intervention from SADC.

But SADC’s inherent limitation as a regional economic community is that its efficacy is largely contingent on the willingness of members to cede a degree of their sovereignty and allow the grouping to speak about their domestic politics.

This limits what the SADC electoral observer mission could do beyond a forthright preliminary report that noted that the elections fell short of its standards. The final report also explicitly outlined that some aspects of the election contravened the country’s Constitution and Electoral Act.

But the regional body could only persuade and make recommendations for concerned parties to pursue appropriate legal processes and domestic remedies.

These are well-worn paths that have led to deadlocks in past elections because of the absence of robust, responsive and independent institutions.

The Zimbabwean experience confirms that SADC, like any other regional economic community, is only as strong as its member states.

Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa are some of the member states to watch this year. A common thread is that all of them have retained presidential term limits. But their liberation-movement ruling parties — Botswana Democratic Party, Mozambique’s Frelimo, Namibia’s Swapo and the ANC — are still the dominant electoral parties.

There has been growing disenchantment with some of these parties because of their failure to deliver a more holistic democracy, as espoused in article 5 of the SADC Treaty (1992), despite the decades they have spent in power.

It will be interesting to see what this disenchantment will yield for these ruling parties this year.

In South Africa, for example, the ANC is facing fierce competition from a plethora of opposition parties that have built their campaigns around disappointment with the ruling party.

Even the most forthright election observation findings and recommendations will yield democratic benefits only where governance institutions, such as electoral commissions and the judiciary, enjoy autonomy.

To strengthen democracy at a regional level requires that it be founded on building grassroots and national level democracy.

The holding of regular, multi-party elections must be buttressed by multi-sectoral efforts towards broadening space for civic participation, particularly of the youth.

An Afrobarometer survey (done between 2021 and 2023) notes that democracy is still the preferred form of government for most of the countries holding elections this year.

This is an opportunity for citizen mobilisation in member states to non-violently push back against repression and censorship and to work hard to entrench democratic principles.

The quest for democracy should be an ongoing one through active participation in a country’s day-to-day governance processes.

It should not be relegated to a once-off pursuit at election times or one to be enabled by outside intervention.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian. 








Senior Researcher: Human Security & Climate Change | Website | + posts

Sikhululekile Mashingaidze entered the governance field in Zimbabwe while she was a part-time enumerator for the Mass Public Opinion Institute’s diversity of research projects during her undergraduate years. She has worked with the Habakkuk Trust, Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR-Kenya), Mercy Corps Zimbabwe and Action Aid International Zimbabwe, respectively.