For some official observers, especially those from conflict zones or less stable countries on the continent, the South African elections were a time to reflect on democracy. For others, it was the first time they had participated in a free and fair election.
But with xenophobic attacks and rhetoric on the rise in the country, there were concerns before the elections from the head of the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) Electoral Observation Mission (SEOM) about the safety of observers from other African countries.
Zambian Foreign Minister Joseph Malanji, the head of SEOM, expressed these in an interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) shortly before the elections.
“We are equally having members of our mission who are not willing at the moment to go and render their services in the areas which are prone to xenophobic attacks,” said Malanji.
“We, of course, are going to have meetings with the ministry of foreign affairs and other stakeholders, the police service inclusive, to make sure that there’s adequate security for our observers. Because we can’t be hindered,” he said.
Malanji met with Minister of International Relations Lindiwe Sisulu, who assured him that the SEOM team would be safe. Other than the 48-member team from at least 10 African countries, including Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, other African migrants living in South Africa also volunteered to act as observers during the elections.
Christian Oluchi Achogbuo, 38, originally from Imo State in Nigeria, said he was encouraged to volunteer as an election observer because he had been following the democratic transition in South Africa closely.
“South Africa, against all odds, has managed to now successfully record some commendable and amicable transitions, regime changes and democratic processes that have continued to amaze the world,” he said.
“This, however, does not insinuate that South African democracy is entirely perfect and impeccable though. But it does suggest that it has a more accountable and transparent democratic process that still eludes most of its African counterparts.”
Achogbuo has been living in South Africa for the past 13 years and has juggled many careers and ventures, including being a missionary, entrepreneur and social justice activist. It was his admiration for former president Nelson Mandela that initially brought him to South Africa.
“Why I moved to South Africa? Well, I wanted more. I wanted to appreciate diversity. I was inspired by Nelson Mandela’s and the ANC’s peace and reconciliation work, and … the new dawn of democratic process that was birthed in South Africa,” he said.
Reflecting on his experience of the elections in South Africa, Achogbuo said that in the lead-up to elections in Nigeria and following the elections process, there was violence and hostility in his country of birth. He referred to the deployment of the military during elections in Nigeria and other African countries as proof of South Africa’s stability and fair elections.
However, he was concerned for his safety. “To be candid, even as an election observer, I was a bit worried for my safety and, at some polling stations, I did not know what to expect. But even in the midst of death, we will keep on walking,” he said.
Achogbuo said he wasn’t attacked and wasn’t aware of any other observers facing threats of violence or intimidation.
“I was satisfied with the elections process in South Africa. My hopes for the future of South Africa is that, like never before, South Africa should learn to appreciate diversity and jettison their stereotype views of other African sojourners as economic migrants … After all, destinies are interwoven. We need each other,” he said.
Let down by xenophobic campaigning
Ariane Umuhoza, 29, moved to South Africa from Rwanda seven years ago. “I voted once in Rwanda … In Rwanda, when you voted, you would never see any party agents. Here, you can see they were very involved in the process,” she said.
“Here, the way party members were wearing the uniforms … I saw one EFF member wearing his uniform and that was something that surprised me. In Rwanda, if you come from the opposition party, you won’t show yourself, you won’t wear your uniform in the public. You won’t show everyone you’re proud of being part of the opposition party.”
Umuhoza said she felt there was a lot more political freedom in South Africa than Rwanda. She did, however, feel let down by the election campaigns of some parties that focused on anti-migrant or xenophobic messages.
“I wish they can put more effort speaking to their people. We are the same, we are all African … They only do that when it is election time. When there are xenophobic attacks, maybe it happens for a week, and nobody says anything,” she said.
Umuhoza said that fortunately she has not been a victim of xenophobic attacks but she has faced intimidation and other threats, to such an extent that she fears using public transport. “You know it can happen in one minute … Sometimes I would not speak my language because they would be able to see I’m not from here,” she said.
Nasra, a 35-year-old woman from Somalia who works as a community worker in and around Cape Town, said she was eager to volunteer as an election observer. She asked to use only her first name.
“I just wanted the experience. It was my first time to be an observer or to witness elections that were happening in South Africa, or even elsewhere,” she said. “It was a good experience.”
“There was no chaos, there was no fighting, no one was complaining. It ran really smoothly. The picture I had before elections, maybe there were going to be problems because I’m a refugee, maybe I will be attacked. So all the things I had in mind, none of that happened.”
Nasra said she had prior experience of xenophobia in South Africa, so her fears were justified. She, along with other family members, had a tuck shop in Khayelitsha, but it was looted. “Obviously, they call me names, they say kwerekwere and those things. But this was a different experience,” she said. Kwerekwere is a derogatory South African slang word for foreigners.
Nasra said she was hopeful that her country of birth could one day have similar peaceful elections. “Overall, I had a very good experience … I cannot even explain more about my feelings. We are praying that it will be possible in Somalia, inshallah [if Allah wills it], one day. Maybe not my generation but one day, for the next generation,” she said.
Fearful of xenophobia as a political tool
Welcome Muamba, 52, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said he regarded his contribution as an election observer as his way to make Africa and South Africa a better place for all.
“Compared to where I am coming from, South Africa is more organised than the DRC … The election in DRC is not free and fair. People are not free to express themselves,” he said.
Muamba had worked previously as an independent electoral commission observer in Mbuji-Mayi in the Kasai-Oriental Province in his home country. He said he was struck by the fact that the election process was able to run smoothly without the presence of the army.
Muamba condemned the use of xenophobic language during the election campaigns of so many parties, along with the larger problem of xenophobia in South Africa.
“Using xenophobia has become the tool South African politicians are using to win the election. I am very scared about that,” he said.