Much has been written about South Africa in the international press in recent months. Most of these articles have focused on the problems and challenges South Africa faces: the fatal triangle of poverty, inequality and unemployment, the fight against corruption, the lack of growth, the need to attract foreign investment. I have to admit that I, myself, have also been pointing at these and other challenges. But the election last week showed us again what's making South Africa so special and exemplary, and, yes, a beacon of hope:
Its democracy is vibrant, robust and competitive. 25 years after the end of apartheid, that's a joy to see. And that's by no means a given.
South Africa's election last week was something to watch and to remember. It moved and impressed me in equal measure.
I was out crisscrossing Alexandra on election day, talking to voters and IEC officials at a number of polling stations. I was impressed by the joyous, peaceful atmosphere – men and women, young and old, South Africans from all walks of life heading out to cast their vote.
The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) did a tremendous job in preparing and running this election – which was judged free and fair by international observers.
I was particularly impressed that the IEC introduced new, innovative instruments that I believe we Europeans can learn a great deal from. Take the important issue of “fake news” and disinformation surrounding an(y) election. What is fact and what is fiction when it comes to social media? What is truth and what is propaganda, possibly peddled to derail elections and mislead voters? To tackle this problem, the IEC cooperated with media research organisation Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) and set up an online complaints platform – the Real 411 – where people were able to lodge suspected cases of “fake news” and disinformation.
To anyone as old as me: “the 411” is a term cooler and younger people use to describe “information” – so my children tell me. It is an impressive project. I had the chance to discuss the platform with IEC commissioner Janet Love, MMA experts and senior journalists during a panel discussion at the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg two days before the election. The main thing I learned is how little I still know – about how “fake news” works, how disinformation challenges the profession of journalism and how misinformation risks shaping our political discourse.
One thing, however, is crystal clear: all our democracies need to tackle this scourge, particularly during election time. Social media is a fantastic instrument – no doubt. But this always-on world of bots, likes and shares is also questioning long-held assumptions about what is driving debates in our democracies. With the European elections just two weeks away, the topic is vividly debated in Germany and elsewhere in Europe at the moment.
There are further aspects of the IEC's work on this election that we Europeans have looked at with great interest. Take the IEC results operations centre (ROC) – a sort of giant state-of-the art newsroom – that was set up in Pretoria during the count of votes.
Nothing like that exists in my country, or any othe country I know. In Germany, each political party organises its own election get-together, while our TV stations publish exit polls from the seclusion of their studios. A hub like the ROC – where scores of politicians, journalists, party officials, think tankers and diplomats mingle while the results are projected on screens in real-time? Unheard of! What a great space and how symbolic for South Africa's vibrant democracy. Where else would you find reporters, politicians and pundits all gathered in the same room for an immediate take on results?
Some of my colleagues told me the whole set-up reminded them of the logistical superlatives of an EU summit. Maybe – but without the Brussels rain, that's for sure, and with unambiguous results in facts and figures.
Whether in Brussels, Pretoria or Berlin, we all still face many challenges when it comes to elections. Voter participation certainly is a key one; getting young people out to vote in particular. South Africa unfortunately is no exception. Many young people across the globe are standing up for their beliefs, defending them in debates and on the street: student protests, #FeesMustFall, the fight against climate change led by brave activists like Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. It's good to see such energy, passion and engagement. However, it's our challenge to also translate that into more participation at elections. It must be clear to the next generation that their future is decided at the ballot box.
Democracy is never a finished product. It is something we have to fight for, build, defend and develop. Conducting elections that live up to the challenges of the 21st century is a major cornerstone on that path. That's what last week was all about.
- Martin Schäfer is German ambassador to South Africa.