Democracy Lab

Paving the Way for Mandela's Election

Organizing the first post-apartheid election in 1994 took a lot of logistical planning and political inclusion. But it also took a lot of creativity in finding  solutions to the numerous problems that arose.

South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission faced a daunting task in January 1994. The newly established body had less than four months to organize and implement the country's first fully inclusive democratic elections. The stakes were high. A successful vote would signal a new beginning for the nation after the apartheid era. Failure could mean civil war. Sitting in his Johannesburg home in 2010, 77-year-old Johann Kriegler, who led the Independent Electoral Commission, reflected on that year. "We had the worst administration you can imagine," he said.  "But we had the political will and we were legitimate. That's what you need. If you haven't got a Mandela, you're in trouble!"

In February 1990, President F.W. de Klerk, the leader of the minority white National Party, released African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison, and lifted the apartheid-era ban on the ANC and other political organizations. But as the ANC and the National Party began bilateral talks, violence escalated and was particularly severe in KwaZulu-Natal, a quasi-independent area, where supporters of the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) frequently clashed. In the run-up to the election for the transitional government, no one knew for certain whether peace would prevail.

The opposition parties did not trust the old government's Department of Home Affairs, which had previously administered the country's elections, to run this new election; instead, they decided to set up an entirely new electoral commission. Under the 1993 Independent Electoral Commission Act, the president appointed 11 South African election commissioners and five international commissioners.  The South African commissioners had to be respected, representative, and suitably qualified members of society who did not hold high-profile political posts.  All commissioners were required to act impartially and independently. Selected commissioners included Johann Kriegler, who served on the Supreme Court; Ben van der Ross, who was working for a South African development agency; and Charles Nupen, who had run the ANC's first internal party elections in the early 1990s and had a background in mediation work. The electoral act also set up a Monitoring Directorate, mandated to keep tabs on every step of the electoral process. In many ways, the commissioners felt they were walking into the unknown when they took their posts. "It's rather like Ulysses passing through the gates of knowledge," Nupen said. "It's only when you pass through a particular gate that you begin to understand and recognize ... precisely what lies ahead."

The commission held its first substantive meeting in January 1994 and decided on an election date of April 27 -- a date that had "assumed great symbolic significance" when it was suggested in the constitutional roadmap of July 1993. The commission faced several logistical and political challenges. It would be the country's first inclusive elections: Under apartheid, only white South Africans could vote; now the electorate expanded six fold from 3 million to an estimated 18 million voters.

The commission decided early on that bringing all key political players into the electoral process was a priority. When the commission began its work, several important figures, such as leaders of "homeland" areas, did not cooperate, and had the potential to destabilize the elections. Under apartheid, black homeland areas had been set up by the white government to separate the black population. Homeland leaders consequently felt threatened by the transition to democracy because their political power depended on the apartheid system remaining in place; some even tried to prevent election-related activities in their territories. The white right similarly opposed the electoral process, such as the Afrikaner Volksfront (AVF), which promoted the idea of an Afrikaner people's state. Meanwhile, fringe elements of the white right went further, engaging in acts of violent sabotage. General distrust also increased the difficulty of winning cooperation between the two main parties, the National Party and the ANC.

The Department of Home Affairs provided some staff to the commission to assist in running the elections. Initially, many in the commission were suspicious of the staff from the old regime, but believed it important to use their skills -- they were the only organization in the country with any experience running elections. Norman du Plessis, who had helped draft some of the transitional legislation, was among those sent to help. According to head commissioner Kriegler, du Plessis "ultimately proved [to be] invaluable."

From the beginning, the commission worked closely with political parties.  Drawing inspiration from the peace committees that had worked on conflict resolution while the country negotiated the 1991 National Peace Accord, the commission set up a party liaison committee.  Each party nominated two members to the committee which operated behind closed doors as a forum for conflict management between the parties, with the electoral commission acting as arbiter.

On top of managing these political challenges, the commission faced numerous practical handicaps. Most of the commissioners' efforts focused on creating polling places, making sure candidates had access to voters, and drawing potential spoilers, such as the white right and some of the homeland leaders, into the process.

Because there was not enough time to compile a voter roll, determining eligibility would have to take place at each polling station. Yet many potential voters had no identity documents, so the electoral commission had to issue temporary voter cards where necessary.  The task was difficult to manage effectively in the limited time available. The Department of Home Affairs initially estimated that two and a half million temporary cards would be needed, but by the end of the election, the commission had issued over a million more than that. 

One of the biggest logistical challenges was determining suitable sites for polling stations. The parties agreed that every voter should be able to walk to a polling station, meaning about 9,500 polling sites had to be identified.  But the parties disagreed about precisely where the polling stations should be located and often pressured the commission to set up more polling stations in areas where they had the most support.

The commissioners and staff found it hard to pick station locations because they didn't know what facilities were available to use as voting stations. One commission official recalled the lack of current and detailed maps: "The rural areas had never been mapped... [and] there hadn't been a census of black people done in the country since the 1950s." Exacerbating these difficulties was that, in the absence of a voter roll, no one knew how many voters would show up at each polling station. The commission therefore contacted South African Breweries, the largest brewer in the country, and used its distribution figures as a proxy for where people lived. The problem, however, was that not everybody bought beer near their home. As a result, several large polling stations that the commission had planned based on beer sales remained virtually empty on Election Day, while others experienced long lines.

Throughout the four months preparation period, the political parties continued to negotiate aspects of the electoral process. One sudden change was to have separate ballots for the national and provincial elections, rather than one ballot. But an additional ballot box at each polling site meant that 1,500 of the 9,500 sites were too small and that more staff was required. The commissioners opted to use temporary polling stations that could be transported and set up easily. Van der Ross contacted a friend from a large construction firm, and "within 24 hours they actually designed a structure, made a prototype, brought it to Johannesburg, [and] rigged it up in our board room," he said. 

Identifying suitable polling sites was also difficult because the commission could not easily access certain areas of the country until near the election. For example, Lucas Mangope, the leader of the homeland Bophuthatswana, did not allow the electoral commission to work in his region and mobilized the Bophuthatswana Defence Force to crush local political dissent. But around mid-March, the Force mutinied, prompting paramilitary members of the Afrikaner Volksfront and the far-right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) to enter the territory in a bid to shore up Mangope's power.  Violence escalated quickly until the South African Defence Force intervened to restore order. Bophuthatswana was subsequently reintegrated into South Africa's administration, and the electoral commission was able to access the territory.

The commission also had to facilitate parties' access to so-called "no-go" areas so that all parties could campaign freely across the country.   It launched a program called Operation Access to liaise with local party structures and organize public meetings. Through the program, candidates would travel together in minibuses and address crowds in short speeches. The commission organized 106 Operation Access meetings in total. Only one ended unsuccessfully, when two weeks before the election, candidates from the ruling National Party traveled with the program to campaign in Phola Park, an ANC stronghold southeast of Johannesburg. The candidates encountered a hostile crowd and when told by their army escorts that their safety could no longer be guaranteed, they decided to leave without campaigning.

The government intervention in Bophuthatswana caused at least one potential spoiler to join the electoral process. According to Kriegler, circulated footage of the far-right AWB members being shot point-blank in the conflict "put the fear of God into a lot of the right-wing." The AVF, the AWB's companions in the botched intervention in Bophuthatswana, then joined the elections under the party name Freedom Front. Nupen said that this was a "critically important watershed, because if they had become an abiding, destabilizing element, it would have made [the electoral process] very, very difficult."

To be as inclusive as possible, commissioners sometimes bent the rules in order to draw these disaffected parties into the electoral process. When the Freedom Front came to register, the commission extended the registration deadline so that it could submit its papers. The commission also extended the deadline for the Pan Africanist Congress. Kriegler remembered the head of the Pan Africanist Congress coming in with the registration documents after the midnight deadline: "There was the clock showing 20 to 1:00 in the morning, and du Plessis saying, 'It looks like five to 12:00 to me.'"

More challenging than bringing the white right into the electoral process, however, was persuading the leader of the KwaZulu homeland and the Inkatha Freedom Party to join the elections. Violent clashes continued between ANC and IFP supporters in the weeks before the elections, increasing concerns that the electoral administration in KwaZulu would be seriously compromised -- particularly as staff had already been taken hostage and even caught in the crossfire of a shootout. About a week before the elections, IFP leader Buthelezi agreed that his party would participate. However, the commission had to address the implications of the last-minute changes, such as issuing an additional 700,000 temporary voter cards in KwaZulu-Natal within the span of four days. Between 600 and 700 more polling stations also had to be identified, set up, and staffed. In the last two days before the elections, the commission recruited 13,000 additional staff.  It also had to modify the already-printed ballots, affixing millions of IFP stickers at the bottom of each ballot -- and had to compensate the National Party, which originally occupied the bottom spot of the ballots and had run an entire election campaign highlighting this fact.

Voting day itself was met with numerous obstacles. The polls opened a day early to allow the elderly, hospital patients, and the electoral staff to vote. What the commission had not bargained on was the hundreds of thousands who turned up, even though the polls were not open for regular voters. "So what does the presiding officer do?" Kriegler asked. "He says, 'Come in my brothers, come and vote.'" The early opening of many polling stations, combined with the absence of a voter roll, led to a shortage of ballots in many areas.  Polling stations in some areas were unable to function because of the shortages.   

The commission agreed to extend the voting to ensure everyone would get the chance to vote. It also had to arrange for many more ballots to be printed. Ballot boxes also were in short supply, forcing many presiding officers to take unconventional measures to store the completed ballots, opening closed boxes and restacking the papers to make more room. Voters' fingers were marked with ink that would show up under ultraviolet light, an important measure to prevent people from voting twice.  The commission decided to use ultraviolet ink with Kwazulu in mind: Before the IFP rejoined the elections, officials worried that marking voters' fingers with visible ink would make them vulnerable to attack.  If the IFP was not on the ballot, then anybody who cast a vote would necessarily be supporting the opposition -- visible ink would help the IFP's henchmen figure out who needed to be reprimanded.  But as voting got under way, supplies of ultraviolet ink quickly ran out. The forensic department of the police worked quickly on manufacturing and duplicating the special ink.

The commission was forced to rely on various officials at the polling stations to resolve other problems that continued to crop up. The communications infrastructure was so limited, especially in rural areas, that the commission could not be involved in sorting out every problem.  Even international election observers, in a breach of normal protocols, adopted a hands-on approach, guiding and assisting local-level election officials at moments when observers would usually just take notes.

The votes then had to be counted. The electoral commission had decided they would be counted in central counting stations (rather than where the votes were cast), but the number was far from enough.  Consequently, some counting stations faced enormous tasks. One in Johannesburg, for example, tallied three million votes, representing about 15 percent of the electorate. The electoral commission had devised a series of procedures to ensure that each ballot box could be traced back to its polling station. The problems started when exhausted electoral workers showed up at the counting stations to drop off the ballot boxes. "These people had been on duty for 48 and 72 hours. They weren't going to go and sit in a long line, waiting another four or five hours while hundreds of ballot boxes are being signed in and stamped," Kriegler said. "They came in and they said, ‘Here are your boxes. We've done our job.'"

At some counting stations, party agents could not agree on the final result; commissioners went to settle disputes and move the counting process along. When Kriegler arrived at a counting station, "there was a mountain... it must have been three meters high, 20 meters, 30 meters in diameter, of ballot boxes. Nobody had signed them in," he said. With the paperwork missing, and nobody knowing where the boxes came from, Kriegler decided the votes should be counted anyway. "I couldn't see any alternative," he said. "We would have had three million people who had stood for hours in the sun being disenfranchised because our process was defective, because we couldn't handle the volume of material? It could never be justified." Kriegler announced the election results on the afternoon of May 6, the final calculations still being tallied as he prepared to speak. The ANC won the election with 62.2 percent of the vote, making Mandela the country's first black president. 

Speaking in 2010, the commissioners offered a variety of explanations for why the elections were successful despite the daunting challenges. Ben van der Ross stressed Kriegler's key role, but also credited the South African people: "It worked because the people of South Africa really wanted it to work." Norman du Plessis stressed the electoral commission's financial independence from outside donors -- thereby giving it flexibility. The commission ran into many problems, but the group was able to identify - and thanks to a one-year 5% tax increase pay for -- solutions, proving crucial to the elections' success. Charles Nupen emphasized the role of the Monitoring Directorate and the party liaison committee, which harnessed conflict-management skills and embedded them in the election administration.  The Monitoring Directorate's oversight of the electoral process also gave confidence to the parties that both the process and the final result of the elections could be trusted.

The commission's timetable was short, but like many post-conflict countries, South Africa had to move fast. By demonstrating a high level of commitment, working closely with political parties to tackle problems head on, and seeking unique innovative solutions to last-minute glitches, the commission convinced a nation that it could believe in its founding elections.    

Photo by WALTER DHLADHLA/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Avoiding War Number Two in Liberia

A war-torn country is not a broken country. How Liberia pulled off its 2005 election.

Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.

In August 2003, a peace agreement ended the civil war that had ravaged Liberia since 1989. In a country of roughly three million people, an estimated 250,000 had died in the conflict, and hundreds of thousands were displaced. The peace accord dissolved the government of Charles Taylor, who went into exile in Nigeria. The accord also cancelled the presidential elections that were slated for the fall of 2003 and named Charles Gyude Bryant as head of an interim government, which was responsible for implementing free, fair, and comprehensive elections in the recovering country.

To monitor the implementation of the peace agreement, the United Nations deployed 15,000 troops and 1,100 police -- at the time the largest peacekeeping mission in the world. Hundreds of civilian U.N. employees also assisted in aspects of post-war reconstruction. Taken together, the military and civilian operations constituted the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).

The peace agreement banned officials of the interim government from running for office, dissolved the existing elections commission, and required Gyude Bryant to appoint seven new election commissioners to be confirmed by the interim Assembly. In an effort to create a neutral elections commission, the peace agreement stipulated that the commissioners be recommended by civil society groups and have either civil society or justice backgrounds. Gyude Bryant nominated Frances Johnson-Morris to head the new election commission. She had served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1997 during a lull in the civil war, and later headed an NGO dedicated to combating human-rights abuses. The Assembly approved her appointment in April 2004 -- 18 months before the crucial national elections. Johnson-Morris had built wide respect as a neutral broker during her tenure as chief justice, engendering trust in her ability to work in the national interest.

The interim government sought to draft a new and clear electoral law to govern the upcoming elections. Legislators debated between using a proportional representation (PR) system or a majoritarian one. The last general elections in 1997 used an "open list" PR system, meaning that candidates were not pre-assigned to a constituency or county; the consequence was that candidates looked to curry favor with political superiors who could dictate their inclusion on the list, rather than constituents. After hearing from commissioners and election experts, the legislators decided on a majoritarian system in which candidates for all offices ran in a single-round election, hoping it would create stronger ties between individual candidates and voters.

The legislature passed the electoral reform law in December 2004. It also abolished a requirement that presidential candidates live in Liberia for at least 10 years, thereby encouraging newly-returning members of the diaspora to compete for public office. "Everyone saw this as an opportunity to participate," Johnson-Morris recalled. "Some people felt that they had been marginalized and excluded for so long. Everyone was eager to go to the process." The electoral commission received considerable assistance from international groups like the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division (UNEAD), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), which provided the commission with technical and logistical support, and contributed more than three-quarters of the $18.9 million election budget.

Johnson-Morris and the election commission had to work quickly to prepare the country for elections. Liberians were on edge. Years of war had sown deep mistrust between ethnic factions. Partisanship had undermined the credibility of previous commissions. Even if the elections commission acted without bias, Liberians were uncertain whether opposing factions would respect the integrity of the vote. As a result, Johnson-Morris set a high priority on building the public's trust in the commission and took steps to ensure the elections were as inclusive as possible.

She and her seven-member team faced a number of hurdles. First, finding qualified election staff would be difficult. Much of Liberia's educated class had fled the country, leaving a relatively small pool of qualified individuals. Second, much of Liberia's transportation and communication infrastructure had been damaged or neglected during the war, and large parts of the country were inaccessible by road. The elections commission needed to register and educate people about the elections; contacting them would be problematic. Moreover, voters had to be able to reach polling places. Adding to these difficulties, mobile phone networks covered only half of the country, and few places outside Monrovia, the capital, had access to the Internet. Third, the commission had to manage a diverse collection of political parties and hundreds of candidates. Most had no experience in campaigning, and political parties were often formed around personalities rather than interests or issues.   

To tackle these challenges, the commissioners met every Tuesday to propose, debate, and vote on new rules to guide the elections. They realized that in order to win public trust, they needed qualified and apolitical staff at their headquarters. The commission advertised for positions, reviewed applications, and shortlisted candidates. They interviewed finalists, who completed a written assessment of their ability to read and write in English. The screening committee disqualified any candidates who expressed partisan views. Many of the new hires had backgrounds in civil society, but few had practical experience in elections management. The commission's international partners trained the headquarters staff on operational issues including voter registration, boundary delimitation, and polling procedures. 

To oversee elections on the county level, the commission appointed magistrates, who were required to hold bachelor's degrees and work in the county in which they lived. United Nations civil service workers assisted the magistrates in hiring a total of 19,000 poll workers. Given the shortage of educated workers, particularly in rural areas, the election commission set few requirements for poll workers. Magistrates gave preference to teachers and other educated professionals, but considered candidates who displayed a basic ability to read and write.

In registering political parties, the commission required new parties to submit lists of at least 500 voting members from 12 of Liberia's 15 counties, rather than from six counties as previously required. Although this provision appeared more onerous, the commission purposefully did not scrutinize the list of voting members in an effort to promote inclusiveness; any move to keep a significant party out of the election could result in disputes and delay the elections process.

The commissioners sought to enhance communications with the parties by creating a consultative group, the Inter-Party Consultative Committee (IPCC). Modeled after a successful experiment in Ghana, the committee was designed with input from both the election commission and the political parties. They agreed that each party would send two representatives to a monthly committee meeting, at which any issues could be raised. Commission staffers would then issue a press release to document resolutions. "The intent behind the Inter-Party Consultative Committee was to defuse tensions and minimize suspicions and misconceptions between the elections commission and the political parties," Johnson-Morris explained. "We wanted to work as partners, not antagonists."

Through the IPCC, the parties agreed on a code of conduct, and commission staffers used the meetings to familiarize the parties with specific aspects of election-day procedures. The gatherings also provided an opportunity for the electoral commissioners to assert their authority. They warned party leaders that they would revoke the accreditation of parties and candidates involved in election-related violence or harassment.

To encourage broad voter participation, the commission sought to register as many eligible voters as possible. Liberia's census figures -- from 1984 -- were too old to be useful in drawing electoral boundaries; the commissioners decided that a voter registration drive would produce the data they needed as a proxy for a full census. They recruited registration officers, established voter sign-up centers, and trained the officers in registration procedures.

During a 30-day period between April and May 2005, 1.3 million Liberians -- 90 percent of eligible citizens -- registered as voters. Village elders vouched for the age and residency of people who lacked identifying documents. Commission staff recorded people's names and other relevant information, and took two photos. One photo accompanied the registrant's name on a voter roll, and the other was put on an identification card given to the registrant on the spot. Registration staff then sent the voter rolls to the commission's headquarters, where staff entered the names and photos into a computer system. Complications, such as cases of multiple registrations, were investigated by the district magistrates.  

While voter registration efforts were largely successful, a major challenge arose from displaced persons. Many Liberians who were displaced by the war and living in camps refused to register unless UNMIL moved them back to their original homes. They feared that after the elections, the new government would give little attention to their plight. But returning all the displaced people to their homes would be impossible before the October elections; many of their villages had been severely damaged and lacked essential infrastructure. The elections commissioners traveled to the camps and urged people to sign up to vote, but many balked. Johnson-Morris faced the prospect of tens of thousands of eligible voters refusing to participate in the elections. 

The commissioners consulted with the transitional government and decided to allow people in camps to register in the counties to which they would be repatriated. For their votes to count in the House and Senate elections, the displaced people had to cast their ballots in their home counties. Displaced people could vote for the president and vice president regardless of whether they were still in the camps or back home at the time of the elections. This arrangement still failed to satisfy many, and the issue continued to simmer for months. With the elections nearing, Johnson-Morris turned to someone she knew had a strong rapport with the displaced communities: Brigadier General Luka Nyeh Yusuf, a Nigerian with the UNMIL peacekeeping force responsible for ensuring the safety of the camps. He held multiple meetings with senior leaders in the various camps to discuss issues of concern, and after months of persuasion, the leaders agreed to encourage the registration effort. In the end, about 61,000 of the estimated 140,000 people living in formal camps in Liberia signed up to vote.

In addition to voter registration, the commission tackled the difficult issue of electoral boundaries. John Langley, the commission's senior policy adviser, indicated the process was a collaborative effort by the agency and local communities. "We could not go and impose on citizens," Langley said. Commission officials held town-hall style meetings in local communities, where they presented rough outlines of the new boundaries and solicited ideas and questions. When commission staff returned to headquarters, they worked with international experts from UNMIL and IFES to nail down the boundaries for each district, taking into account social and cultural factors noted during the town hall gatherings. An IFES official explained the collaborative approach: "The village chiefs would come and say, 'No, that area there, the people over there will not feel satisfied if they are joined with these people.'"

On election day, the commission worked hard to prevent voter fraud and suspicions of fraud by monitoring polling staff and mandating adherence to electoral procedures. To assist illiterate voters, the commission printed candidates' photos and party symbols next to their names on the ballot. Still, many voters did not know how to mark their ballots. The commission therefore allowed polling station officers to instruct voters on the proper way to mark their ballots rather than risk widespread ballot invalidation. When the polls closed, party agents signed the official tally sheets to certify they had witnessed the counting of each ballot. Poll workers placed one copy of the tally sheet into a transparent ballot box along with the ballots, and sealed the box. Each party agent received a copy of the signed count. Poll workers then transported the box to the county elections office. The commission did not recount the ballots at the county elections office, nor did it undertake a parallel vote tabulation.

A cadre of international and domestic watchers helped ensure proper conduct of polling staff. Commissioners had visited their assigned counties in the weeks before the elections, observing training sessions and meeting with the magistrates to review preparations. Their presence delivered a clear message to poll workers that headquarters was carefully watching their actions. International forces provided election security, as the Liberia National Police were severely understaffed and under-resourced. Peacekeepers were stationed at every polling place, while mobile patrols kept watch over access points to and from the voting centers. 

Thanks in part to these pre-emptive measures, the October elections unfolded relatively peacefully. However, tensions flared in November, when presidential candidate George Weah lost a run-off vote to his chief opponent, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. After the commission announced the run-off results, thousands of Weah supporters marched on the U.S. Embassy, under the supposition that the United States had rigged the election for Johnson-Sirleaf -- an idea espoused by the chairman of Weah's party. Protesters threw stones and police responded with tear gas. Weah appealed for calm while he challenged the result at the elections commission, which found insufficient evidence of fraud. He then appealed to the Supreme Court, but dropped the matter after the African Union pressed him to concede for the sake of peace.

Despite this controversy, the elections commission was satisfied with the conduct of the elections. Samuel Cole, the director of civic and voter education, noted proudly, "Today, people can look at the 2005 elections in Liberia as a role model in Africa." Although there were scattered incidents of violence before and after the voting, several factors contributed to the relative peace. The heavy presence of armed UNMIL peacekeepers prevented local disputes from worsening and gave voters confidence that they would be safe. The success of the elections also reflected the commission's care in staff selection, its emphasis on fairness for parties and candidates, its openness, and its willingness to relax certain requirements to encourage broad participation by Liberians.

Speaking in 2011, Frances Johnson-Morris recalled voters' enthusiasm for the 2005 elections. "Those were exciting times, because Liberia had been at war for nearly 14 years, and to have an opportunity to elect leaders that would take them out of the mode of belligerence and violence, that was very good," she said. She stressed that the commission's consultative approach earned the trust of voters and political parties. "When you involve people in decision making, you uphold your transparency and your credibility. I think we did that very well." 

Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images