South Africa

Op-Ed: Democracy and violence – the threat to South Africa’s elections

By Martin Plaut 8 February 2018

South African elections take place against a background of violence. By MARTIN PLAUT.

The ruptures of the apartheid era have been carried over into post-apartheid society, leaving the country with a tragic reputation for beatings, murder and the abuse of women and children. Police record some 650,000 victims of violence a year. As a recent headline put it: “South Africa is one of the most violent and unsafe countries in the world.” There is little trust in the police and more than 500,000 private security guards are employed by firms and individuals at a cost of $3.7-billion a year – more than twice the number of police officers.

This climate of violence is carried over into political life, yet outside of South Africa this is little understood. Most international observers assume the miracle of the reconciliation ushered in by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with the Rainbow Nation still prevails. Yet the evidence is that political murders and intimidation now disfigure South African politics. Violence and intimidation threaten the legitimacy of the 2019 general election. Unless these issues are recognised and confronted there is a risk that the democracy for which so much was sacrificed will be undermined.

Political killings

In June 2016 the Minister of Police, Nkosinathi Nhleko, announced that a special police task team had been established to investigate and try to prevent political killings. “We have noted with serious concern the incidents of killings, particularly where political figures are victims or where the killings are being linked to the upcoming local government. A situation like this cannot be allowed to continue, especially in the context of democracy,” he said in a statement. A year later Minister Nhleko reported that the killings continued, as did the work of the “special task team”, which consisted of seven detectives, five crime intelligence officers, four members from the Hawks and 11 members from the taxi violence task team.

No details of any prosecutions by Police Minister Nhleko have been published, nor have the findings of the police “special task team” been made public. This failure has left the public in the dark about the scale of the problem. The killings are worst in KwaZulu-Natal and the province established the Moerane Commission to look into the issue. When it was announced, the premier of the province said: “Our records show that during 2016 to date, a total of 12 members of the African National Congress (ANC), 3 members of the National Freedom Party (NFP), 3 members of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and 2 members of the South African Communist Party (SACP) have been murdered.”

This is almost certainly an under-estimate; eNCA has produced a detailed report in which it states that: “KwaZulu-Natal alone has recorded 450 political murders between 1994 and 2013. Fewer than one in 10 of these murders saw successful convictions.”

What is clear from all the analysis is that until recently most violence and murders have been carried out within the ANC. This is changing: recently DA councillors have also been killed. The violence within the ANC is frequently part of a struggle for political influence; a means of gaining access to government contracts. Politics was largely (but by no means exclusively) driven by corruption. Opponents inside the party have been killed, since political power is frequently one of the few sure paths to wealth and influence in impoverished communities. Once in office, the politicians have access to privilege and resources to reward themselves, their families and those that depend upon them. It is this system of corruption and patronage that has fuelled the intra-ANC killings. This is accepted by the party. The former ANC general-secretary, Gwede Mantashe, was quoted as saying: “The reality is that selection of candidates for council is always a life-and-death issue.”

There is also a serious failure of the police to successfully investigate and prosecute those involved in these murders. Following a spate of political killings in 2016 the commentator Gareth van Onselen observed: “In every case, the police have said the motive for the killing is unknown, although politics has not been ruled out. In every case, no arrests have been reported and the police have asked the public to come forward with information.” The analyst David Bruce calculated in 2014 that of the 120 political killings he uncovered since 2003, just 10% may have led to a conviction.

Three trends

Murder appears to have become an entrenched element of South African politics. Three trends are likely to increase the threat in the coming years.

1. The erosion of ANC support

The ANC began losing control of cities to the opposition in 2006 when it lost Cape Town to a coalition led by the Democratic Alliance (DA). The ANC’s response was less than democratic: attempting to use administrative means to dislodge the DA and when this failed, taking to the streets in an attempt to make Cape Town “ungovernable”. In 2009 the DA took the Western Cape, the first time the ANC had lost a province. The ANC escalated its attacks. In 2012 Mfuzo Zenzile, secretary of the ANC Youth League in the Cape Town region, acknowledging that he had issued threats against the elected government, declared: “Our memorandum said we’d make the city and province ungovernable if our demands were not met in seven days.”

During the 2016 local government election President Jacob Zuma used some remarkable tactics in an attempt to win support. The president – promising that the ANC would retain power until the second coming of Christ – told voters that their ancestors would never forgive them if they voted against his party, and would bring them bad luck for the rest of their days. In traditional, rural communities this was not a prospect that voters would take lightly. President Zuma also predicted that without the ANC the country would descend into violence. Despite this incendiary language the ANC lost control of Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and the Johannesburg area. It was a shock for the party from which it is still attempting to recover. Nor has the violence ended. In the Nelson Mandela Bay area there have been incidences of intimidation and death threats against DA councillors. These have been reported to the police and the ANC.

Ahead lie the 2019 general elections. If it becomes apparent that the ANC could actually lose its hold on power nationally, the party is likely to fracture, with commentators predicting an escalation of violence.

Jakkie Cilliers and Ciara Aucoin of the Institute for Security Studies ended a survey of the prospects in the coming years with this chilling conclusion:

South Africa is likely to experience significantly increased social instability in the next two years, mainly in the form of higher levels of violent protests, as the factional battles in the ANC plays out. On the current path violent protests will escalate, and we forecast particularly high levels of violence within the ANC in the run-up to the December 2017 National Conference as well as more general social and community violence in the run-up to the 2019 provincial and national elections.”

Van Onselen went further:

As the ANC implodes, as factionalism intensifies and as a culture of patronage and nepotism turns in on itself, it is not unreasonable to ask: how long until a senior member of the executive or the national government administration is assassinated?”

To be fair, these remarks were made before Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Jacob Zuma as President of the ANC (although not as president of the country) in December 2017. It is possible that Ramaphosa will steer the ANC away from this path. It is premature to conclude what his presidency of the party will achieve, but Ramaphosa’s reputation was tarnished for his involvement in the Marikana massacre of mineworkers in August 2012, when police opened fire on strikers with automatic weapons.

As a board member of the Lonmin mining company, Ramaphosa was involved in communications with the police during which he described the strikers as criminals and called for “concomitant action” to be taken. While this is not to suggest that he wished the miners to be shot he must bear some responsibility for encouraging the police to end the strike. Given the long history of police brutality in the country it was hardly judicious to make such statements.

2. The ANC turns its internal violence outwards: towards its political rivals.

Opposition parties, including the Democratic Alliance, have already lost councillors, but murders are only the most obvious form of political intimidation. Threats to political opponents (whether inside or outside the party) have become endemic. The researcher, David Bruce, who reviewed previous elections, argued that one major form of intimidation is the disruption of meetings and events by those wishing to stifle political opposition. To support this argument Bruce interviewed a number of anonymous victims of political intimidation, largely those from parties being intimidated by the ANC. These are three examples which Bruce cites, two of intimidation against the DA and one against the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

One interviewee from the DA in Mpumalanga described such an incident:

So we would hold an event in a given community, let’s say 20,30, 40 community members would arrive, the ANC would make sure that they are at the same venue at the same time also with 20-30 people to come and just make noise and disrupt you so that you physically can’t speak because of the noise interference. I had one in Delmas two months ago where we had to cancel the entire days’s tour because the ANC literally followed us around with cars and the moment we stopped at a venue in a park somewhere, we started calling people together to come and talk to us, the ANC will come and surround us and prevent the people from talking to us.”

Another interviewee from the DA in the iLembe district north of Durban cited the following:

Look, we actually had alerted the community and members of the DA that we were going to be having this gathering on Wednesday… when we arrived there were ANC members who gathered just down the road from where we were supposed to be. When we started with our meeting their group kept growing… and then as we wrapped our meeting they came to us singing and toyi-toying and they started bashing our cars [and] insulting people”.

The interviewee from the EFF reported the following:

All EFF meetings have been disrupted, and they have been disrupted in this manner… So there is a pattern. … You have people who are wearing ANC T-shirts. In a huge turnout, we have never addressed less than two thousand people where we’ve been, without posters and all those things. All you say is ‘EFF is going to have a meeting and Julius is gonna address’. People come in huge numbers. And you see a group of seven ANC people wearing T-shirts, howling. And you ask them, ‘What is your problem, we want to have our meeting.’[They respond] ‘No, this is our community, we cannot be removed. Freedom of this … blah blah blah.’ If you are here then you must allow us to have our own meeting, and without you interfering with that.’ And they will become rowdy, even violent, even aggressive. In one instance one of the girls that was a part of the group literally hit my beret to the ground. I think they want to portray us as violent. That invites us to physically, you get what I mean, because if you hit my beret, obviously EFF members attach significance to the beret, and their leadership. So perhaps that’s their strategy to collapse our meetings and then the report is that we beat people up in meetings. So, that is what would happen. In Pretoria for instance, they were literally throwing things at us, bottles and what. And the police were useless.”

The evidence of intimidation, threats and murder is compelling. The political “space” in which South Africans can act has narrowed and (particularly in poorer communities) has sometimes been denied. The Constitution – for which its people fought so hard – guarantees political rights, but in some communities this is severely undermined.

3. The rise of the professional hitman

This has made South African politics increasingly dangerous. Professor Mark Shaw and Kim Thomas of the University of Cape Town produced a paperThe commercialisation of assassination: hits and contract killing in South Africa, 2000-2015.”

Thomas and Shaw used the media (including local, regional and national news) to build a database of individual hits or attempted hits over a 16-year period. They recorded just over 1,000 individual cases of assassination or attempted assassination. By no means all were political. “Where there is a cross-over between the involvement of state and criminal actors in perpetrating such violence, or co-operating in ways that facilitate violent outcomes, the position is particularly serious,” says Shaw. “The result is a blurred distinction between the licit and the illicit, with a resulting replacement of trust with violence, or with the threat thereof.”

In his book: Hit men for Hire: Exposing South Africa’s Underworld, Mark Shaw explained the devastating toll that murders have taken on the political system: “The system of assassinations is a vicious political cycle: it empowers those whose power comes from the gun, and disempowers those who rely on their standing and capacity for delivery. Unchecked in South Africa it will undermine the very foundations of the democratic system.”

It is the combination of these three trends: of an erosion of ANC support, of the externalisation of violence once used to settle scores within the ANC and of the rise of the professional hitman, that make future elections so dangerous. It would be a mistake to reach apocalyptic conclusions, but it would be equally irresponsible to ignore these warning signs.

Lessons from the 2014 general elections

South Africa has a reputation of holding free and fair elections. This is not an unfair assessment, but it is not entirely accurate.

Although the ANC, as a party, sometimes appears dormant when there is no election to be fought, it certainly conducts its election campaigns in an impressive fashion. Drawing on a legitimacy born out of a century of working for the rights of the African people, the party is capable of mobilising its core supporters across the country. Its support among the ethnic minorities has declined and its leadership is no longer peppered with white, coloured and Indian faces. Yet it continues to win the backing of the majority of the African population.

Anyone travelling beyond the white suburbs of Cape Town into the predominantly African suburb of Khayelitsha during the 2014 general election could not fail to be struck by the degree of ANC support. DA posters on the lampposts were few and far between. On election day itself, ANC T-shirts were ubiquitous in African areas, although the DA and other opposition parties also had supporters who wore their party’s colours. In part, this was because the ANC simply distributes more T-shirts than its opponents, as one report put it: “The African National Congress took its national election campaign to Botshabelo in the Free State on Sunday with ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa conducting street visits. Ramaphosa left a trail of yellow T-shirts, walking down a street in L-section in Botshabelo, handing out shirts and greeting people.”

This reflects the ANC’s vast spending power. No official statements are provided by any of the parties about their election budgets, but unofficial estimates by the DA suggested that the ANC outspent by its main rival four or five times. In part, this is the result of the ANC’s highly effective investment arm, Chancellor House, which channels funds into the party from government contracts. This diversion of public resources to fund the party has been repeatedly criticised.

For example, in April 2014, on the eve of the election, it was revealed that the ANC had taken control of a supplier to the state electricity corporation, Eskom. Advocate Paul Hoffman, head of the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa, described the deal as “illegal” in terms of the Constitution. He warned that “this means money received from a state-owned entity will go straight into the coffers of the ANC… No other party has the temerity to enter into deals like this, where they are both [player and referee],” said Hoffman.

1. Using and abusing state assets

The ANC has managed to retain power by using the resources of the state. This state of affairs was reflected in an editorial in the Mail & Guardian.

A reason why the ANC has managed its gravity-defying levitation, despite disillusionment within the ranks and derision outside them, is the power of incumbency. The ANC holds the goodies bag and has no hesitation dolling out taxpayer funded lollipops to keep the kiddies happily distracted… At the most crass level, it has been the distribution of state funded food parcels, blankets and T-shirts at ANC political rallies. The DA is taking the ANC and the SA Social Security Agency to court to halt this ‘grotesque and continued abuse’ of taxpayer funds.

A variation on this theme are newspaper advertisements and roadside billboards paid for by government departments, such as those ostensibly lauding the service achievements of the Gauteng provincial government, but dressed in ANC colours and using minimally tweaked ANC slogans. Such outrageous tactics, tried and tested by Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe, haven’t raised as much as an eyebrow at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).”

The ANC has displayed a ruthless disregard for the probity of office. It is a party that projects itself as the sole authentic representative of the entire people, rather than a mere political entity. As such it sees little need to distinguish between its interests and those of the nation as a whole. President Zuma suggested that the ANC should rule in perpetuity. This might be dismissed as soap-box hyperbole and hubris, but this would be a mistake; it is an attitude that has bred a sense of entitlement and resulted in a blatant disregard for the boundaries between party and state resources. There is considerable evidence for this assertion.

On 7 April, with the election campaign well under way, the DA’s then leader, Helen Zille, held a press conference to highlight the issue. She drew the media’s attention to a range of abuses involving the use of government resources for party political advantage. Ms Zille described the government’s Fetsa Tlala (End Hunger) programme as little more than a fig-leaf for ANC election campaigning and political patronage. The programme, with a budget of nearly R2-billion, included the distribution of tens of thousands of Fetsa Tlala T-shirts to the public. The T-shirt, printed in ANC colours had President Zuma’s face on the front, against a backdrop of an ANC flag. On the back were the words “We have a good story to tell” – the ANC election slogan.

She also raised the hiring of dozens of giant advertising hoardings in Gauteng, along major highways. Again, the adverts were in ANC colours and only slightly edited versions of the ANC’s election slogans. The DA calculated that the 51 advertising billboards in Gauteng were displayed at a cost of over R2-million a month, paid for by the province, not the party. Photographs of the billboards and examples of the Fetsa Tlala T-shirts emblazoned with Jacob Zuma’s face were provided to the media.

The question that then arises is whether these tactics were efficacious. Hard evidence for this is, naturally, difficult to arrive at, but there are indications that it is. A survey by the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) revealed that just under half of voters were not aware that the social grants that they received were theirs’ by right:

The centre’s director, Leila Patel, said the finding was ‘worrying’ as it meant that these voters — 49% of the respondents — were not aware of their rights. The potential for political abuse is large, given that just under 16-million grant beneficiaries are receiving social grants amounting to R121bn this year. Agriculture MEC in KwaZulu-Natal, Meshack Radebe, for example, said in April that ‘those who receive grants and are voting for the opposition are stealing from government’. He said that those who voted for another party should ‘stay away from the grant’, as if social grants were gifts from the ruling party. In fact, these grants are funded by taxes in order for the government to meet its constitutional obligation to provide social protection.

Summarising the study, Professor Yoland Sadie described the role of social grants in deciding voter behaviour as important, even if it was not decisive. In this regard the legacy of voter identification of political parties as historically representing ‘black’ or ‘white’ sections of the population was not insubstantial:

“… social grants can provide an incentive for people to vote for the ANC, since a large proportion of grant-holders who support the party do not think that ‘they will continue receiving the grant when a new party comes to power.”

The combination of using state resources (via advertising hoardings, newspaper advertisements and food parcels at rallies), together with suggestions that grants and pensions might be at risk if a voter supported an opposition party, would appear to be effective weapons in the ANC’s armoury.

2. The role of the state broadcaster

The state broadcaster, the SABC, is the largest news gathering organisation in the country, with three of the four national free-to-air TV stations, 18 regional and national radio stations. It also broadcasts in all of South Africa’s 11 official languages, plus Khoisan tongues !Xu and Khwe. It also has a long and sad history of being the tool of the ruling party. Although modelled on the BBC, the apartheid government used the SABC as a tool of propaganda. The ANC has followed in their footsteps. This unfortunate fact was reflected in an article by Anton Harber, former Editor of the Mail & Guardian and Professor of Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand. In South Africa: SABC Is Key Weapon in ANC’s Arsenal, Professor Harber concluded that the SABC was “one of the party’s most potent weapons” since it has a far larger audience than any other media.

Broadcasting in all of South Africa’s major languages, the SABC can reach the parts others simply cannot. “That is why the ANC has so much to say about the inadequacies of the print media, but is so silent on problems at the SABC, which can be relied on to block opposition adverts, play down Nkandla and pursue the ANC narrative. It is why it was prepared to lend R1.5-billion to the SABC and give only a few million for the Media Development and Diversity Agency to support community media.”

This is not the first time that the ANC’s use of the SABC has been highlighted. Susan Booysen suggested that the party has used the broadcaster to bolster its image in previous elections. “The ANC expertly uses the public broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), to feed supporting information, in particular in terms of government activities and statements by top-government figures in the run-up to elections.”

Concerns about the SABC falls into two categories: bias and political advertising. The question of bias has been raised by many parties. For example, the Congress of the People (COPE) accused the chair of the SABC, Ellen Tshabalala, of encouraging an audience to vote for the ANC. “We have always suspected that the SABC has the ANC’s back (sic), and our suspicions have now been confirmed without a shadow of doubt,” the statement read. Similarly, the Pan African Congress youth wing accused the SABC of being “the mouthpiece of the ANC”.

More serious were the accusations of censorship against the SABC for its refusal to air the party political broadcasts of the opposition parties. The DA was most severely affected, but it was not alone. The Economic Freedom Fights of Julius Malema complained of the same treatment. The DA’s commercial was refused permission twice by the SABC. The broadcaster claimed that the advert might incite violence against the police, used false information and attacked another party. Media Monitoring Africa scrutinised the arguments, rebutting them all. The issue became something of a cause célèbre in the media. One commentator erupted in anger, declaring: “Hlaudi,” (Hlaudi Motsoening, the SABC Chief Operating Officer) “play the damn commercial!” The SABC finally relented and broadcast the material, but considerable damage had already been done. In any election, timing is critical and days were lost as the lawyers wrangled over the complaints. These incidents did little to enhance the SABC’s reputation.

3. Violence and intimidation

The Southern African Observers Mission [SEOM] report published after the vote noted some violence during the May 2014 election, but suggested that it was inconsequential.

SEOM observed that electoral campaigns were generally peaceful. Contesting parties demonstrated political tolerance and maturity. However, there were incidents of inflammatory statements made by some parties that were inconsistent with Section 99 of the Electoral Code of Conduct. SEOM also noted that there were sporadic incidents of violence and intimidation during campaigns in some provinces. Some of these incidents were related to service delivery protests and industrial actions.”

It is difficult to reconcile this bland and frankly complacent statement with the lengthy and comprehensive report produced just before the election by David Bruce, cited earlier. As he argued, poverty renders many people susceptible to political manipulation. “As this report shows, people’s economic vulnerability is an important factor exploited by those involved in intimidation in South Africa. The reliance of people on government grants, or government employment programmes, may create hesitancy about the possible risks of being identified as a supporter of a party other than the ruling party.” This point has been outlined above but CASE provided much greater detail concerning the range of measures used to convince the poor to support the ANC.

The report also went into considerable detail about the means of more overt measures the ANC adopted. These included everything from parking vans outside meetings with loudspeakers blaring to make discussion and debate impossible, to straightforward attacks and beatings. All were in contravention of the Code of Conduct published by the Electoral Commission which expressly forbids any “language or act” that provokes violence or results in the “intimidation of candidates, members of parties, representatives or supporters of parties or candidates or voters”.

Even when there was no direct physical violence, the report frequently found threats and intimidation of political activists during campaigning: “Say for example you would go on a Saturday afternoon and we would conduct door-to-door visits and all of a sudden you would just see a big group of ANC supporters chasing you away and say ‘you do not belong in this community, go away’ and literally threatening our activists and toyi-toyiing and they would be threatened with their lives that they gonna kill you, and they would be doing signs like this [indicates throat cutting motion]. So it is literally threats you know that we will kill you if you don’t go out of this community.”

The CASE report makes it clear that while the ANC is not the only party to engage in these crimes and misdemeanours it is the main perpetrator. As David Bruce concluded: “… the research overwhelmingly pointed to the ANC as the primary source of intimidation in South Africa”.

4. Election day and the Electoral Commission

The former chair of the Electoral Commission, Pansy Tlakula, made it plain that electioneering was forbidden on 7 May – the day of the election itself. “No political events can take place on voting day,” she told reporters. “Campaigning finished at midnight last night.” Having travelled around the townships surrounding Cape Town throughout election day it was evident that this ruling was extensively and openly flouted.

As the day drew to a close, cavalcades of cars, with loudspeakers blaring out party songs and supporters waving flags from the windows, could be seen touring up and down the streets. Outside polling stations crowds, some more than a hundred strong, dressed in party colours and waving ANC flags, could be seen dancing less than a metre from the long lines of men and women waiting patiently to cast their votes. When this was drawn to the attention of the police and the representatives of the Electoral Commission at the stations they either shrugged their shoulders or said they did not have the resources to deal with these violations of the regulations.

The Electoral Commission appears to have little appetite for tackling these transgressions. The commission also refused to intervene in other election related issues, including the bitter debate between the opposition parties and the SABC. There is a suspicion among the opposition that the commission is less than equitable in its treatment of their parties or their members. This is reflected in the interviews undertaken for the CASE report, which suggested that the Commission was biased in favour of the ANC because of the partisan nature of the civil servants that it uses as its representatives at polling stations. This is the view of a member of the Inkatha Freedom Party.

We are not happy as the IFP about the fact that IEC is using teachers as you know presiding officers, because teachers belong to SADTU, because SADTU is a strategic partner of the ANC. Each time there is going to be an election SADTU goes public to say that they are committed to ensuring that the ANC wins the elections. Now if you use such people to manage the processes of the elections then those processes are bound to actually attract question marks from other people.”

Another interviewee, this time from COPE, had this to say: “Remember most of them are civil servants and largely teachers, who are members of SADTU. With each election, SADTU declares its unwavering support for the ANC. Whilst he or she is employed by the IEC, to deliver impartial elections, on the other hand they’ve got a mandate from their trade union, which is an ally of the ANC, to deliver votes for the ANC.”

The commission appears to take a narrow interpretation of its responsibilities, only acting to ensure that what happens directly within the polling stations and at the counting centres is free and fair. This, despite its mandate in paragraph 190 of the Constitution, which calls for the Electoral Commission to “manage” the elections in accordance with national legislation and to “ensure that those elections are free and fair”. It would not be impossible for the commission to use this constitutional requirement to act more robustly to ensure that the environment in which the elections take place is far more conducive to the unrestricted expression of the will of the people of South Africa; a right for which they fought so hard.

The 2014 election attracted little attention from the rest of the world. The African Union and Southern African nations sent observers; the European Union (in a break from past practice) did not. Reportage in the international media was slight and not very revealing. This is unfortunate since South Africa, for all its imperfections, remains one of a handful of real democracies in Africa. It is worrying that there is such apparent complacency in the international community when, as indicated above, there are real flaws in the democratic process. There is no doubt that the ANC would have won a substantial victory even if there had been an entirely clean election, but the election was flawed and should be recognised as such. As the CASE report concluded: “Though it is not necessarily a feature of life in all poorer communities the research in this report indicates that intimidation and other forms of manipulation are a systemic feature of political life in South Africa.”

Looking ahead to the 2019 election

What can be done to ensure that the democratic rights won in 1994, and enshrined in the Constitution, are not eroded? This is not a question that only concerns citizens of South Africa. The future of the whole region is intimately linked to the political economy of the country. The international community played a major part in ending apartheid and has an interest in the country’s citizens continuing to exercise their rights and freedoms in a vibrant democracy.

The African Union, Commonwealth and the United Nations all have an interest in encouraging and supporting the people of South Africa in this regard. It is not enough to pay lip service to this: as the evidence produced in this article demonstrates, there are serious concerns about the way in which violence and murder have become an integral part of the political process. As worrying are the trends exhibited in the run-up to the 2014 election. These showed how, in the weeks and months before the voting took place, the ANC used state resources to bolster its electoral chances, while dominating the state-run media. On election day the Independent Election Commission failed to ensure that its ruling prohibiting campaigning was adhered to. The police stood by while clear violations were perpetrated.

In the circumstances it is evident that the international community should do all it can to support South Africans in their desire to hold an election in 2019 that truly reflects their views. To ensure that this takes place will require all those concerned to play their part. This should include the African Union and the Southern African Development Community, United Nations and the Commonwealth. Other international actors, including the Carter Center, Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the Westminster Foundation have important contributions to make. All can support the Independent Election Commission in fulfilling its task, and backing the many civic society organisations that are such an integral part of South African political life. The South African media, which has done as much as anyone to hold the government to account, deserves to be supported.

International observers need to be deployed to monitor the election well before the election date. Stephen Chan, who was involved in some of the earliest African election monitoring, has argued that this is essential. “An advance team of experts – or those briefed on the constitutional, electoral, and political affairs of the country – should be in place as a reconnaissance unit at least a month before polling day. And that team must be energetic and mobile, traversing the country. Observation is no country for old men, nor old women, the unfit, timorous or easily frightened.” Professor Chan goes on to suggest that governments have become adept at holding elections that are rigged well before polling day. He suggests that observers must be aware of the complex and nuanced ways in which African elections are abused and be prepared to provide what he calls “a more extended and sophisticated presence during and after campaigning, including regarding the counting of votes and the testing of the count”.

Together these measures should help ensure that the 2019 election is an improvement on the election held five years earlier. In the end this is – of course – the responsibility of the South African people, but the world has too much invested in the country’s future to allow its precious democracy to be undermined. DM

Martin Plaut is Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

Photo by Juda Ngwenya /Reuters

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