South Africa's Election Technology Coup

By Huma, Willy | The World and I, November 1999 | Go to article overview

South Africa's Election Technology Coup


Huma, Willy, The World and I


This fledgling democracy leapfrogged its voting process to the brink of the twenty-first century using technology ranging from the global positioning system to satellite dish receivers and the Internet.

On a rainy day in November 1998, helicopters carried equipment for South Africa's second democratic election into remote, mountainous areas in Kwazulu Natal Province. Farther south, in the Eastern Cape Province, an ox wagon delivered bar code scanners to a rural village, completing the job left unfinished when an off-road vehicle broke down. For people living in some parts of rural South Africa, which has the youngest constitution in the world, no other mode of transportation was available to assure their registration for and participation in their democratic right to vote.

Delivering technology to remote places is only part of the untold story of how South Africa prepared for its second national elections. The process, actually more of a journey, was guided by South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), whose establishment had been authorized by an act passed in 1996. The IEC is responsible for conducting national, provincial, and municipal elections as provided by the constitution.

As a result of hard lessons learned from South Africa's first national election in 1994, the commission had decided to rely on information technology to assure that all eligible voters would be identified, registered, and provided the opportunity to vote in national-level elections.

On June 2, 1999, the IEC's efforts came to fruition as the world watched South Africans go to the polls. Recalling the riots and long, two-day queues of 1994, the media paid special attention to the political situation, noting the peaceful, enthusiastic 80 percent voter turnout. And, as Nelson Mandela handed over the mantle of the presidency to his democratically elected successor, Thabo Mbeki, the world recounted how Mandela had led his country out of the dark days of apartheid.

What the world missed was the amazing effort and undertaking that produced these results, which were announced within five days of the vote.

"Above all we wanted to avoid the confusion that occurred during the 1994 general election, which was largely due to the lack of logistical planning," said Howard Sackstein, IEC chief director of delimitation and planning. "There had been limited control over the numbers and identities of the people who voted at each polling station. Voting supplies were inadequate, and security was ill-prepared to handle the throngs of people."

In the 18 months prior to the 1999 elections, the IEC had mapped the country, drawn voting districts, registered 18.4 million voters, and built an information technology infrastructure needed to support the electoral process. The size of the commission's task cannot be overstated, nor the importance of the legacy that it left to the country. The project not only brought the people their elected government, it also established for the first time in rural, remote parts of South Africa the kind of information infrastructure that is an essential underpinning for modern economic development.

"The technology is a gift from the commission to our country's people-- particularly in the rural areas," said Mandla Mchunu, chief electoral officer of the IEC. "Telecommunications is central to improving education, which is the cornerstone of economic development in these parts of South Africa."

Using advanced systems and processes, the IEC effort introduced technologies that leapfrogged the world's existing best practices. The IEC's efforts integrated business processes, people, and technology to ensure a well-oiled election machine. Without ever having the land-line telecommunications network that generally provides the foundation for satellite communications and other technology, remote parts of South Africa jumped into the twenty-first century with leading-edge information technology. …

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