In South Africa’s dark recent past of discrimination and segregation, an individual’s religion, race or nationality was cause for brutal division and oppression. Today, twenty years since the fall of Apartheid and our first multiracial elections in 1994, it is poignant that our country’s democratic process has bene used as a platform for bringing communities together.

The opening of the polls in Johannesburg on Wednesday May 7th.

The opening of the polls in Johannesburg on Wednesday May 7th.

In a historic interfaith and multinational election observer team, nearly 100 Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Christians and Agnostics came together last week to monitor South Africa’s fifth democratic national elections on May 7th.

Under the auspices of the SA  Jewish Board of Deputies and officially accredited by the IEC, I was privileged to put together and coordinate the team, known as ‘Make Us Count’, which observed voting at over 250 polling stations in five cities across three provinces. The team included various nationalities such as Zimbabwean and Congolese refugees, British and Australian citizens who, whilst they could not vote wanted to contribute to South Africa’s future,  as well as local citizens both young and old.

‘Make Us Count’ had the historic opportunity to meaningfully contribute to South Africa’s democratic process whilst building bridges between various groups, an act that embodied the ‘Rainbow Nation’ spirit. Observers supervised the delivery of ballot boxes to voting stations and the opening of the polls; dealt with various problems at the stations during the day and ensured that the polls were closed on time and that counting began in due course. We were in constant communication with one another throughout the day, using the power of social media, Whatsapp and bulk SMS lists to send up to the minute reports on the voting as well as photographs of the proceedings. The few isolated incidences our team experienced, primarily around the efficiency of bar-code readers and one or two issues of suspected ballot fraud, were immediately brought to my attention and I was able to relay the information on to the IEC hotline that logged our complaints and then checked in with me throughout the day with updates on their investigations.

Our grateful thanks goes out to the hard working IEC staff around the country, who showed great patience, concern and dedication to their jobs in the lead up to the elections and on voting day, and to all the SAPS and party agents who worked hand-in-hand with our team to ensure that our elections were a worthy example of democracy in action. I could also not have asked for a more energized, dedicated and professional group of volunteers who, from such diverse backgrounds, careers and locales gave their all on election day, with many of our team staying at their stations non-stop to count votes into Thursday morning.

The monitoring group formed just one aspect of the SAJBD’s pre-election ‘Make Us Count’ election awareness, education and mobilization campaign, which in addition included education drives amongst the youth; mobilizing people to register to vote; promoting the registration of South Africans based overseas and hosting a series of high-profile political events across the country in the lead up to the elections. We continue to collaborate closely with the IEC in the weeks following the elections, and are currently collating a comprehensive report of our observers’ findings on the day. We hope to expand the scope and capacity of ‘Make Us Count’ in the near future, to become an on-going partner of the IEC in the monitoring of upcoming local and the 2016 municipal elections across South Africa.

Free and fair elections are a crucial foundation for the continuing development of a democratic South Africa where all human rights are respected. Initiatives that foster tolerance, understanding and friendship between peoples of different backgrounds in our country are equally vital in transforming our violent and oppressive past. In this 20th year of democracy, it is heartening to see the elections being used as a stepping stone towards a South Africa that celebrates the diversity of her people.

Sealing ballot boxes during the national elections 2014.

Sealing ballot boxes during the national elections 2014.