For the first time in South Africa’s history, people of all races queued to exercise their democratic right to vote in the watershed elections of April 1994.  How do our recent 8 May elections compare with those of a quarter of century ago, and others which followed them, in terms of being ‘free and fair’. Did the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) behave in a nonpartisan, professional manner?  Were political parties able to campaign freely? Were voters able to vote for the party of their choice without fear of intimidation, or retribution if they were deemed to have voted for the ‘wrong’ party.  Comparisons between 1994 and 2019, and the years in between, show that we have indeed made tremendous progress in the past twenty-five years..

The four-year negotiation ride to the 1994 elections had been a bumpy one. As the election date approached the IFP which, together with its right-wing allies, had been demanding increased devolution of powers to provinces, was refusing to participate, and warned that it was entering a stage of ‘resistance politics’. The political violence of the 1980s and early 1990s escalated to unprecedented levels and the threat of civil war loomed. By the end of March 1994 a minimum of 1 149 people had died, mainly in KZN and to a lesser extent, in what is now Gauteng in the first three month of the year. When the IFP announced, on 19 April, that it would participate the country heaved a collective sigh of relief. Although the vast majority of the three hundred plus April deaths in KZN occurred before that announcement, and despite the introduction of a State of Emergency, attacks, including on party agents who were canvassing, continued until the eleventh hour. For logistical reasons the elections in KZN were run over three days and, relative to the mayhem that had preceded them, and despite a great deal of intimidation, they were reasonably peaceful. 

However, there were glaring irregularities and a great deal of evidence of rigging. Prince Sifiso Zulu, who was acting in a co-ordinating, administrative capacity for the IEC in Empangeni, found himself under siege and fled to Durban with a large pile of incriminating documents. An internal IEC memorandum recommending that the elections in the northern part of the province be declared null and void was ignored. It is known that the votes in some areas were not even tallied, and it was widely believed that the outcome of the election stemmed from a political settlement.

The violence continued post-election, especially in northern and lower south coast areas, leading to the first local government elections, held in most parts of the country in 1995, being scheduled for 1996 in KZN. These elections proceeded relatively peacefully, due mainly to saturation deployment of security forces, including the SANDF.  However, large numbers of people were unable to participate because they had been displaced from their homes by the violence.  Amidst numerous allegations of voting irregularities and gross intimidation, especially in rural areas, the elections appeared more free and fair in some areas than in others.

These patterns of widespread intimidation and violence, including deaths, in the run up to elections, were to continue through the 1999 (another violent year) and 2004 national, and 2000 and 2006 local government, elections.  Allegations of voter fraud generally decreased with successive elections.  Rural areas remained extremely vulnerable to violence. Election days, while not incident free, were largely peaceful.  Amidst allegations of partisan and inadequate policing, party agents in rural areas were also vulnerable, fearing to remain at their stations after dark unless there was increased police presence.  KZN Monitor reports for these periods detail a litany of complaints of threat and intimidation, and numerous calls for police intervention.

A consistently dangerous area was Macambini (near Mandeni), where a notorious traditional leader and gross human rights violator continued to threaten and intimidate opposition party candidates (one obtained an interdict) and even IEC officials.  In the 2006 local government elections ANC candidate Sibongile Zungu was threatened with death, and allegations of voting irregularity in her ward were documented in four affidavits; the ANC declined to act, or to offer any protection to Mrs Zungu.  Her home was subsequently razed to the ground. The family, miraculously, escaped death, but lost everything.

By 2009 the situation leading up to, and during, the national elections had improved, but there still numerous documented incidents of threat and intimidation, including against COPE members after its split from ANC.   2011 saw the emergence of the NFP which split from the IFP and a period of conflict between the two parties continued for a few years. In the run up to the local government elections that year two prominent ANC eThekwini councillors – Sbusiso Sibiya and Wiseman Mshibe  – were assassinated, and the elections themselves were marked by intra-ANC conflict over nominations and alleged manipulation of party lists.  Those irregularly nominated included the current mayor of Durban, Zandile Gumede.

The 2014 national elections saw further improvement. However, there were at least twenty murders (excluding Glebelands deaths) in the seven months preceding the August 2016 local government elections. Fourteen of these deaths appeared linked to contestation along factional lines in the ANC, and government corruption.  Prior to these elections protest actions had become increasingly violent and destructive

Although politically-linked murders have continued, canvassing by party officials in the run up to the recent elections has proceeded smoothly.  One exception was a brawl between IFP and ANC representatives in the Lindelani area near Shakaville township in KwaDukuza, a historically volatile site where an ANC supporter was killed on 2014 election day. There was one reported death during the recent elections, that of an IFP supporter in eMatimatolo (another closely contested area), who was allegedly shot by an ANC supporter. A NFPs supporter was injured.

It was violent and destructive protest action which replaced inter-party tensions and conflict during the recent elections, and was sufficiently disruptive to interfere with voting in some areas because of damage to infrastructure and the blocking of roads.

Minor glitches were reported, but the IEC must be congratulated for running substantially free and fair elections. Good planning around police deployment also played an important role, with one seasoned south coast election monitor reporting that they had handled a stand-off between EFF and ANC supporters at one station well.  There were, however, complaints about insufficient numbers being deployed at eMpembeni(Richards Bay) where people had been scared to vote after an alleged murderer was released on bail.  Two days after voting, four people, including a young child and a high school learner, were brutally murdered in that area.  Another crucial factor in the success of these elections was the presence of well-trained observers, many of whom were deployed by churches.

We have good reason to be proud of progress made in past quarter century. However, the real test for the incoming government will be whether, when 2021 elections take place, protests will still dominate the polls – of whether we shall see a steady decline in their number and severity because of improved service delivery.

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