OP-ED Opinions 

News24.com | Congratulations to the people of South Africa for the strength of your democracy!

If you thought the voting queues were shorter this

South Africans vote to queue in the 2019 elections. (Velani Ludidi, GroundUp)

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, writes Martin Schäfer.

Congratulations
to the people of South Africa for the strength of your democracy!

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.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

Find everything you need to know about the 2019 National and Provincial Government Elections at our News24 Elections site, including the latest news and detailed, interactive maps for how South Africa has voted over the past 3 elections. Make sure your News24 app is updated to access all our elections coverage in one place.

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