What we have in South Africa is good

Brigalia Bam. Picture: Lucky Nxumalo
Brigalia Bam. Picture: Lucky Nxumalo

A few hours before she launched her new book – Democracy, More than Just Elections – in a freezing Joburg, former Independent Electoral Commission chairperson Brigalia Bam told Dumisane Lubisi what she hoped her book would achieve and reminisced about her world-class team

Are you nervous ahead of the launch?

I am a little nervous. I’m trying to think why. Maybe there are too many people coming. Maybe people might ask me difficult questions, which I want to make sure I answer.

How did the book come about?

The book has been written for many reasons. It is written to share stories with the younger generation. I hope it would be of interest for generations to come to know that once upon a time as a nation we were organising ourselves to go to elections, which wasn’t easy.

I want to share the things that happened at that time when we were trying to be a nation. For instance, when we were trying to create a voters’ roll – which was very useful to make us a nation because we had different IDs as South Africans.

An exciting experience that the young people would not believe is that once upon a time we were living in different places. In villages, we didn’t have boundaries, didn’t have municipalities, we didn’t have councillors.

It is really for them to see what we have achieved in the past 21 years.

Why write the book now?

My biography was my major preoccupation in the beginning, and we had to get that done.

It never occurred to me that I should write a book on elections. It was not my idea, but that of Rich Mkhondo, who had worked with us for a very long time. The idea was very much supported by the publishers. It was his idea because he loves elections – anything that has to do with elections he writes about – and he was also a speech writer at the Electoral Commission. So, with that enthusiasm on his part, we started on the book.

One of the things you write about is the limitation of a presidential term. What informed that?

What I really hope for is not to annoy people who would like to do things differently, but give an opportunity to South Africans to do a number of things.

One is to revisit the electoral system because this system was set up and it was wonderful, and served us so well in the beginning. Because we didn’t know each other, we had no experience in choosing our own candidates, we were divided and we didn’t even have criteria.

We didn’t even have the number of parties that we now have. Maybe as we are revisiting the system, a lot of other things in the journey of learning will come up because we are only 21. I think that this will open a fair discussion.

South Africans might say to us that we are not ready as people at local government level to find suitable people. They might say we are not ready to set the criteria of a councillor we want, we are very happy with the person who the party decides for us.

But what I think South Africans are also saying to us is that they want to participate in the appointment of the people who lead them. As I was in this job, I was hearing people say they were also looking for people who were accountable to us.

I believe we are capable people and I think South Africans are ready to coin their own mixed electoral system.

Is the integrity of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) intact, and can it be trusted?

The institution is solid. It is trustworthy. Institutions are run by human beings and not each and every human being is the same. We have to depend on an individual when you have temptations related to people who are influencing you to do things that are against the law.

I do not wish to give up on us as a total institution. I trust that this institution will remain trusted, will remain solid and dependent, and will remain transparent.

Can we do more to strengthen the independence of the IEC?

Actually, we are very fortunate if you compare us with the rest of the world. What we have in South Africa is good. We have best provision in the Constitution to keep our independence.

The head of state cannot dictate to the Electoral Commission when the results should be announced. In other countries, if the head of state is nervous about not winning, he will tell the Electoral Commission not to make the announcement. Not in this country, no matter what.

What do you miss about the job as chairperson?

As an observer member for the African Union now, what I miss most is my world-class team from South Africa. I wish they could come with me when I go to other countries to assess their elections, and help me give support to these countries. That is what I miss most. I do not miss other things

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