Only three of the elections in the period under review – the Ghanaian, the South African and the Angolan – delivered credible results. African electorates continue to be short-changed, and indeed blatantly cheated, by their political elites, many of whom are quite willing to resort to violence as long as it ensures them victory. At the time of writing, for example, Madagascar ’s elected president had just been removed by the military, adding another chapter to Africa ’s wretched record of illegitimate changes of government.
So while the ambiguities persist, all three of the countries acknowledged above were also not too long ago, pariahs, in this regard. They were all regarded as either military dictatorships, one party states or repressive racial regimes. The tipping point was reached in all three of them through the courageous, relentless work of civil society. This underlines one aspect of the theological virtue of hope and that is that things can change. The three countries all challenge us to see the free and fair elections as triumphs for democracy as well as an encouragement to keep on working for that change simply because we now know that even the most seemingly immutable situation can be transformed.
Secondly the triumph of free and fair elections are also in some senses code for free speech, open participation in the public domain, institutions of accountability, freedom of association and other aspects of a human rights culture which in the social teachings of the church stands as a solid indicator of the common good.
Finally it is always more than just about votes it is about the work of civil society holding the political domain accountable, engaging in political education and linking votes to the critical issues of the day and in that way building a truly participatory culture.
To the degree that there are lacunae in the systems or worse still where exclusion is still more marked than participation, there is a definite challenge to engage in acts of solidarity which can alter political realities. The icons of peoples power on the bridges of Selma in the 60’s, on the township roads of Soweto in the 70’s, in the streets of Manilla in the 80’s, a top the Berlin wall in the early 90’s are all testimonies to the fact that peoples power, shaped into strategic political action is in fact the threshold of the voting station; and those earlier moments are best secured by solidarity. That is a good reason why a trans continental solidarity is not unconnected with the dawn of democracy.
Thus the credible elections are more than just the absence of intolerance or maladministered elections, they are the achievement or the progress towards a set of values which ultimately shape consciences and ensure an environment in which justice can flourish and peace last for many ages. We would do well to ponder again the words attributed to St. Augustine ; ‘that a government without justice is no better than a gang of thieves.’ It is in establishing the opposite sentiment to that Augustinian insight, the real significance of the free and fair ballot box ultimately lies.
I think that it might be a good idea to acknowledge in tiny font that ‘a version of this paper inspired by the AFCAST meeting was published as a briefing paper by the CPLO’ or words to that effect.