YESTERDAY we celebrated 16 years of the advent of our democracy.
In celebrating this milestone, we must reflect on our successes and challenges so far.
The 1994 elections will go down as one of the watershed moments in the history of the world. At that time\, some within and without the borders of our country had predicted that the country would erupt into flames. They were proved wrong.
The elections went smoothly and 19 parties contested elections that returned a voter turnout of 86percent.
The peaceful manner in which the elections were conducted earned us the title of a "miracle nation".
But those of us who are election administrators know that operationally these elections were the most difficult to manage.
The absence of a voter's roll coupled with the fact that people could vote wherever they wanted to made planning a nightmare.
The 1999 elections were also historic in the sense that it was the very first time that South Africans voted on a common national voter's roll that replaced the various racially segregated lists that existed during apartheid.
In just two weekends the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) managed to register just more than 18 million South Africans.
Since then our electoral democracy has grown. The number of registered voters has increased to almost 23 million.
Registered political parties have increased from 50 in 1999 to 156. Of these, 40 contested the elections in 2009 compared to 26 and 37 in 1999 and 2004 respectively.
Of concern is the decline in our voter turnout, which dropped from 89percent in 1999 to 77percent in 2009. But we still compare favourably with both developed and other developing countries ,where voter turnout ranges from 59percent to 89percent.
There were also interesting developments over the past 16 years.
We experimented with "floor crossing" which, thankfully, we did away with after realising the negative impact it had on our democracy.
Our courts extended suffrage to prisoners and voters based outside the country. Through continuous learning and innovation, the IEC has improved its level of efficiency and effectiveness.
As a result our country is regarded as one of the shining lights in election management.
Without exception our elections have been peaceful, free, fair and transparent.
These achievements are worth celebrating, particularly if one takes into consideration that in recent years, on our continent and elsewhere, badly managed elections have plunged some countries into serious crises and have produced results that circumvented the will of the people.
We started our journey to democracy by adopting a strong constitution that entrenched every conceivable right and created a myriad of institutions to strengthen our democracy. In doing so, we were spurred on by our resolve to ensure that never again in our history will any section of our society be stripped of their dignity and unfairly discriminated against.
We even entrenched social and economic rights and thereby made them justiciable. We are one of the few countries on the continent that has adopted an effective access to information legislation.
It is important for us to remind ourselves of our achievements as we celebrate 16 years of democratic rule because we live in an era in which some parts of the world are experiencing a backslide in human rights. In some parts of the world, freedom of expression, in particular media freedom, is under attack.
Media practitioners are harassed, arbitrarily imprisoned or even murdered for publishing articles that are critical to the government. We live in an era in which people are persecuted for their gender identity, in which civil society organisations find it difficult to operate due to laws that impose stringent registration requirements, thereby stifling freedom of association.
We might not be experiencing this backslide at the moment but if we become complacent we will.
We are not a perfect nation. We do have our fair share of challenges, such as violent crime, corruption, poverty and unemployment.
We have to tackle head-on the scourge of racism that now and again rears its ugly head. Its denial has not and will not take us anywhere.
A cohesive national identity that binds all of us as South Africans irrespective of race, colour or creed remains illusive.
Events such as the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations might have made a contribution in this regard.
The 2010 Fifa World Cup will also make a contribution. We need more than these events to reach this goal. Failure to address these challenges may undermine the gains that we have made so far.
It is therefore important for all of us, as we march towards the second decade of our democracy, to recommit ourselves to intensify our efforts to build a united and democratic South Africa which 16 years ago took its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations as our Constitution enjoins us to do.
lThe writer is chief electoral officer of the Independent Electoral Commission