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Political Spat Brews Over South African Opposition's Appeal to United Sates

Supporters of the South African opposition party Democratic Alliance (DA) react during the DA's manifesto launch at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, on Feb. 17, 2024.
Supporters of the South African opposition party Democratic Alliance (DA) react during the DA's manifesto launch at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, on Feb. 17, 2024.

By Kate Bartlett

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s president has slammed a request by the country’s main opposition party that the U.S. help monitor upcoming elections. The governing party says the request is misguided given issues with “the West’s” own polls.

A letter by South Africa’s leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance or DA, to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other Western governments asking for help monitoring South Africa’s May 29 election, caused a political furor this week.

South Africa is well-regarded as having held free and fair polls in the past, but the DA’s letter asks for foreign help to “safeguard the integrity” of what it notes will be “the most crucial election” in 30 years of democracy.

A new poll this week showed the governing African National Congress getting just 39% of the vote, which would mean losing its majority for the first time, since 1994 in the first post-apartheid elections.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said the DA’s letter was “’disingenuous” as the country has always employed international election observers and accused the opposition of trying to “mortgage” the country’s sovereignty to foreign powers.

South African International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor said, "To write such a letter, particularly to countries that don't have observation and very low participation rates in their elections, is rather surprising and a demeaning attitude about South Africa."

Meanwhile, Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri, an ANC spokesperson, said “the West’s” own elections have not always been without controversy.

“Despite our impeccable track record of running free and fair elections in South Africa, we’ve never sought to comment on the elections in the West, even when their own citizens question the credibility of their electoral processes,” she said.

While she did not mention the U.S. directly, some South Africans have pointed to disputes over American elections; for example in 2000 when George W. Bush beat Al Gore, and in 2020 when Donald Trump falsely declared the election had been stolen.

Asanda Ngoasheng, a political analyst, said the U.S. had its own political troubles.

“I think it’s ironic that the DA has sent the letter that it sent because in the United States former President Trump is still to this day challenging their last election,” she said.

Asked to respond to the backlash, DA shadow minister for international relations Emma Powell doubled down.

“It is clear however that the ANC’s ferocious response to the request made by opposition parties for observer support is because the ANC themselves have something to hide,” she said.

The U.S. has distanced itself from the controversy.

David S. Feldmann, mission spokesperson at U.S. Embassy Pretoria told VOA, “South Africa is a sovereign democracy that runs its own electoral processes. The Independent Electoral Commission has a longstanding and excellent reputation for conducting free and fair elections.”