Cape Town — Levels of political violence in South Africa are lower than might be expected but there have been instances of intolerance across the country, and party activists have threatened voters with loss of food and jobs if they vote for the opposition, reports the Election Monitoring Network, a group of civil society organisations which has deployed 500 monitors nationwide to watch for election-related abuse or violence.
Events since our last report have confirmed our view that the most competitive election in South Africa’s history has been accompanied by much lower levels of political violence and intolerance than might have been expected. Thus far, South Africa has proved far readier for vigorous political contest than we might have hoped, given that political competition is so new to our country. There is reason to hope that this election will set a pattern in which free competition for the votes of citizens will become routine.
In particular, tensions in KwaZulu Natal appear to have eased significantly: levels of election-related violence seem to have declined and it is now easier for voters to display their party allegiances in public. Two factors are likely to have contributed to the improved climate in the province – a heightened police presence has reportedly deterred violence while party leaderships do seem to have urged their supporters to avoid conflict. We welcome the use of security forces to protect citizens’ rights to campaign and to choose and we are gratified that party leaders have seen the wisdom of actively promoting tolerance among their supporters.
We are also pleased to note that the Independent Electoral Commission has acted to protect the integrity of the election by dismissing employees who are affiliated to political parties or are party candidates. The IEC’s action confirms that it recognizes the need to demonstrate its independence where this is challenged. An electoral commission which is committed to showing that it is impartial is an important asset and we are confident that the IEC will continue to investigate allegations of bias and abuse and to act against them where they are by found to be accurate.
This does not, however, mean that the threat of electoral violence has ended: we remain concerned that the announcement of results could trigger conflict in KwaZulu Natal. It is important that the measures which have secured a free political climate in the province remain in force after the results are announced – and that losers who feel aggrieved see the wisdom of using legal challenges to resolve their grievances.
Nor should the reality that violence has thus far been largely contained in the other eight provinces blind us to the fact that our monitors have reported incidents of political intolerance in most of the provinces: the disruption of party meetings by opponents, the defacing or removal of election posters and the denial of meeting venues to parties are the most common examples.
Party leaders need to work more actively to prevent these attacks on the right to campaign freely and vigilance will be needed to ensure that they do not trigger violence in the last days of the campaign and after results are announced.
Our relief that levels of violence have proved lower than we feared is, however, qualified by evidence that party activists have used resources and connections to government service providers to deny voters, particularly those who are poor and vulnerable, their right to choose freely.
We continue to receive reports that food parcels are used to persuade the poor to vote for those who provide them and that voters are told that they will only receive the social grants and public services to which they are entitled if they vote for particular parties.
We have also encountered claims that municipal officials have been demoted and forced to perform menial jobs because they support a particular party. In some provinces, it is alleged that traditional leaders are trying to ensure that they decide for their subjects how they should vote. There are, therefore, legitimate concerns that this has been an election in which parties’ right to campaign has often been respected, but in which grassroots voters have been subjected to unlawful pressure designed to force them to vote in particular ways.
We wish to stress that a free and fair election is not only one in which violence is avoided and parties are allowed to campaign: if our elections are to be valid tests of the people’s will, it is equally important that private and public resources not be used to pressure the poor and needy to vote in particular ways. These abuses are often not as dramatic or visible as electoral violence – but the illegitimate use of power to deny the poor and weak a free vote is just as much a threat to the health of our democracy.
We urge all citizens, and in particular citizens’ associations and the media who help to influence our public debate, to highlight these abuses of power and to insist that those responsible be prevented from imposing their will on their fellow-citizens. And we urge party leaders to work harder to ensure that their supporters do not use money and power to force the poor and weak to vote for them.
The Election Monitoring Network (EMN) is a network of independent civil society organisations that deploys a team of 500 monitors nationwide to keep a look-out for election-related abuse or violence. The monitors are trained and informed community members who are politically independent and upon selection they sign a Code of Conduct to pledge their independence. They are in contact with provincial and national institutions and able to take rapid action with conflict resolution exercises when necessary.
The EMN’s Steering Committee is located in the Western Cape and its members are Idasa, Action for a Safe South Africa, the South African Council of Churches-Western Cape, the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum, the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Cape Town, the Quaker Peace Centre, the Centre for Conflict Resolution and the Black Sash. The EMN began monitoring the runup to the 2009 general elections in November 2008, and has already identified a number of potential threats to the election process throughout the country.