Des van Rooyen looks like a man who is very grateful not to be finance minister. At a briefing for foreign journalists on Tuesday, the day before the most tightly-contested local elections in South Africa’s history, the minister of cooperative government and traditional affairs was relaxed as he chatted and joked with journalists.
Although its significance was lost in the furore around the finance minister merry-go-round in December – memorably, Van Rooyen lasted just four days in the position – his new role is possibly just as important. It is his job to make sure these elections go smoothly, and fairly, and it hasn’t been easy.
He maintains that he was not fazed by his sudden, much-criticised entry to the top table of South African politics. “We are trained for such developments. It’s all systems go, and we are focussing on the task at hand,” he said.
That task is Wednesday’s vote, for which some 26.3 million South Africans are registered to vote in 22,612 polling stations across the country. Van Rooyen is expecting a large surge in turnout: from 57.5% % in the last vote to as much as 65% this time around. This is based on the number of people registered, the number of competing candidates, and the unprecedented level of interest in this local election.
Van Rooyen urged registered voters to cast their ballots, suggesting that non-voters. “Any eligible citizen that does not vote cannot be part of a growing democracy.”
A high turnout, especially in the closely-contested metropolitan areas, is expected to favour opposition parties, whose supporters are typically more motivated than those of the ruling party (historically in local government elections, the proportion of DA supporters who actually make it to the polls is some 14% higher than the proportion of ANC voters).
This analysis is by no means certain, however. “ANC number crunchers say high voter turnout in the key wards that they have identified in highly contested areas, such as Nelson Mandela Bay, will secure majority votes for the party,” reported City Press.
Given the expected turnout, keeping everything on track – and keeping everyone safe – is therefore an even more daunting logistical and security exercise. Van Rooyen said that police are already over-stretched, and that the defence force had been called in to assist where necessary. “We are concerned [about the prospect of violence], that’s why we’ve pooled everything to calm the situation…but we still have some remaining hotspot areas. Those areas are being attended to. Invoking the defence force is a last resort, and we think it will be extremely minimal.”
Van Rooyen said that while violence cannot be ruled out, the systems put in place to contain any trouble will work. “Yesterday, there were eruptions of protest in the Eastern Cape. In a period of hours, police were able to deal with it and people were able to vote. Such might arise tomorrow morning, but we are confident in the ability of police to deal with it.”
Although Van Rooyen would not be drawn on whether this vote was a de facto referendum on President Jacob Zuma’s perceived leadership failings – the minister is considered to be firmly in the Zuma camp, after all – he did acknowledge that government had a responsibility to listen to what voters were telling them. “As elections are conducted, it gives people a chance to reflect on their leaders. They send signals to their leaders. The people have the opportunity to send a message to their leaders through the ballot paper,” he said. DM
Photo: ANC supporters gather in the lead-up to the 2011 elections. (REUTERS)
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