South Africa should be a moral leader in the region and should call out countries that deviate from the values it holds sacrosanct, especially if those values have been agreed upon by the whole region and are in the collective interests of the people. Beyond sending a strong message, this article recommends certain actions can and should be taken by South Africa when regional partners violate shared values. This applies to the elections in Uganda where Yoweri Museveni, 76, is facing up with a rival half his age, the musician turned politician Bobi Wine, 38 (real name Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu). Museveni is seeking to extend his term of office beyond the 35 years that he has enjoyed at the helm of power.

These elections have been far from free and fair in the buildup to election day on January 14, 2021. The government of Uganda has unleashed violence, through the state machinery, on its main political rivals. Activists associated with the National Unity, which is headed by Bobi Wine, have been killed. 54 people were killed in November of 2020, others have been brutally assaulted, and much of this has been captured live on social media.

The state has used spurious charges to keep its opponents in and out of prison throughout the electoral cycle. Access to the internet has been shut down periodically and access to popular social media applications such as twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp has been restricted. This denial of digital platforms is noteworthy because the majority of the country is under the age of 35 and very active on social media. Social media platforms allow for free discussion while the state has a heavy hand over the state media.

The electoral commission of Uganda has failed to adequately grant observer status to election observer missions from various countries and civil society organizations. This is yet another sign that the agenda is not to allow for the free expression of political choice but to seal the deal for Museveni. These are the hallmarks of modern African dictatorships, the pretense of electoral freedoms while making sure that there is not even a playing ground. This was the playbook perfected by Robert Gabriel Mugabe and it allowed him to stay in power for 37 years.

South Africa should not sit by and do nothing, a strong message has to be sent and that message must be accompanied with diplomatic action. Here is the moral case for this position; South Africa should uphold values that were paid for in blood and tears over 46 years of resisting the apartheid system of governance. South Africans fought to create a constitutional democracy that has enshrined democratic values in the Bill of Rights.

Those values are articulated in section 19 of the constitution:

19. Political rights

1. Every citizen is free to make political choices, which includes the right

a. to form a political party;

b. to participate in the activities of, or recruit members for, a political party;

c. to campaign for a political party and or cause

2. Every citizen has the right to free, fair and regular elections for any legislative body established in terms of the Constitution.

3. Every adult citizen has the right ­

a. to vote in elections for any legislative body established in terms of the Constitution, and to do so in secret; and

b. to stand for public office and, if elected, to hold office.

A price was paid for every word in the constitution, each word comes with a legacy of trauma. Every South African understands the cost of living in an oppressive society where only some have the right to vote, the right to participate in politics. That understanding of the pain and trauma of oppression should be the driving force in seeking to remove oppression anywhere that it rears its ugly head in Africa.

There is a more legalistic argument that can be made as well. A lot of work has already been done to create a common framework for democracy in Africa. That framework will remain hollow if those who can speak up remain silent when they see it violated. The 2007 African Charter for Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) is an agreement by African states with a mandate of strengthening democracy across the continent.

There are some articles which are worth highlighting for the purposes of this article:

Article 4 of the African Charter for Democracy, Elections and Governance states

  • State Parties shall commit themselves to promote democracy, the principle of the rule of law and human rights.
  • State Parties shall recognize popular participation through universal suffrage as the inalienable right of the people.

Article 17

State Parties re-affirm their commitment to regularly holding transparent, free and fair elections in accordance with the Union’s Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa.

Uganda is a signatory to the ACDEG and it is clear that the conduct of the Museveni government is in no way consistent with the spirit and letter of the African charter. Uganda is effectively in breach of this seminal treaty on electoral norms and something must be done. The best entities to challenge the government of Uganda are those countries which have both the moral high ground and strong diplomatic gravitas on the continent. South Africa has held 6 national government elections successfully, in those elections opposition parties were afforded full access to the media, opposition parties were not frustrated in their efforts by the police and the military, their leaders and members were free to mobilize the people, share their ideas and canvass for support.

Unlike in Uganda, the South African electoral commission acted with integrity and allowed observer missions to observe the elections. As a beacon of democracy in Africa there is clear room to call out countries that are deviating from the standards and best practices. South Africa is the second largest economy in Africa and is one of the fastest growing sources of foreign direct investment for Uganda. South African investments include telecommunications (MTN Uganda), Breweries (SAB Millers), Finance (Stanbic Bank), wholesale and retail (Shoprite Checkers, Metro Cash and Carry, Woolworths, Game), poultry (Bokomo), energy (Eskom). The economic relationship between the two countries allows South Africa a voice on this issue.

South Africa must speak up when other countries which have agree to uphold democracy violate the terms of the African Charter.

So what actions must South Africa take in response to the events in Uganda?

  1. Request an emergency meeting of the African Union on this matter.
  2. Consider removing its High Commission from Uganda and cutting its diplomatic ties.
  3. Take a firm position that the elections in Uganda were not free and / or fair.
  4. Escalate the matter to the level of the United Nations.

In this interconnected world sovereignty must be viewed in the prism of the interest of the people on the ground. If sovereignty is being used a shield to not pierce the veil of oppression then that principle should be examined more carefully. When South Africa ignored the human rights abuses and electoral fraud of the Mugabe regime, the outcome was a mass migration of Zimbabweans into the region, some as political refugees and others fleeing starvation and disease. This came at high cost to the region, a high cost that is still being paid today. What will be the cost of inaction in Uganda, if those who have the space and capacity to speak ignore the atrocities? What price will be paid ten years from now? Can Africa continue to subsidise the economic costs of dictatorships?

Martin Luther King Jr famously said –  “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

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Jamie Mighti is a law and business graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand. He is an independent researcher and political analyst and runs a weekly African current affairs podcast called Jozi...

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