South Africa

2019 ELECTIONS – Reporter's Notebook

Behind the scenes: journalists sit it out at the IEC nerve centre

Zama Luthuli, a videographer at the IEC Results `Operations Centre in Pretoria. Photo: Chanel Retief

The IEC Results Operations Centre in Tshwane has been swamped with journalists since voting closed on Wednesday night on 8 May. Like the politicians on the floor, their eyes are focused on the giant boards as the national and provincial results are updated.

Shahan Ramkissoon

Shahan Ramkissoon is an eNCA news anchor who thinks that journalists have become too friendly with politicians and this affects their objectivity. Photo: Chanel Retief

It’s the fourth elections he has covered since 1999 and Shahan Ramkissoon, a news anchor at eNCA, has noticed that this time around, the elections are “more exciting” because voters have more options.

However, as he travelled across the country during the eNCA town hall debates, he “noticed that people are disinterested” in politics and “are asking why should they vote”.

There are 36.5 million people eligible to vote in South Africa, of which 26 million registered to vote, with a projected 65% turn out. “We should be concerned about the lack of participation in elections,” said Ramkissoon.

Reflecting on the elections so far, he said news networks needed to “give people more of a voice” and “a bigger platform” rather than “elevating the voices of politicians”.

He added that “journalists have become too friendly with politicians”, which made it difficult to be “objective” and also seem as if journalists were “being harsh” when they “ask tough questions”.

There is a line that has been crossed,” said Ramkissoon.

Veronica Makhoali

Veronica Makhoali is a `news anchor at Wits Radio Academy. She says she would like bigger media houses to support community radio stations. Photo: Chanel Retief

Wits Radio Academy news anchor and content producer Veronica Makhoali was a “little bit disappointed in the way journalists have covered the elections” as they unduly focused on “the big three political parties”.

She produces content for community radio stations and she said she agreed with the grievances of the smaller parties, which held a press conference on Thursday to protest against the election results because of poor media coverage and ‘election rigging’.

The small parties came from communities and knew people’s struggles. The mainstream media, such as SABC, eNCA and Newzroom Afrika, had failed to uplift these parties and to inform people of the many options, she said.

Makhoali was also “disappointed” with the IEC following reports that a voting station in the Western Cape did not open. At a press briefing, the IEC had said it was not aware of this, said Makhoali. “This is an infringement of people’s rights to vote.”

The IEC needed to incorporate fourth industrial revolution technology into the voting process, she added, instead of using “outdated methods” such as ink markers, which had proven to be unreliable.

Clement Manyathela

Clement Manyathela from EyeWitness NEWS At the IEC Results and Operations Centre says he enjoys his post at EWN. Photo: Chanel Retief

Post-election events were intriguing and worth keeping an eye on, said Clement Manyathela, a journalist at Eyewitness News.

There wasn’t “the usual hype of elections” in the run-up to the vote, he said, although it did pick up closer to 8 May. What he was interested in now were how the results were showing that the internal battles within the ANC and DA had influenced their overall results.

There was an “anticipation” regarding what would happen to DA leader Mmusi Maimane now that the party had lost some votes compared to 2014, Manyathela said, as well as what the party was going to do to win back the support that went to FF+.

Are they going to change their policy on land?”

Manyathela was also keeping an eye on the type of cabinet President Ramaphosa would appoint and how much influence the ANC National Executive Committee would have on the cabinet. The committee had much to do with recommending people to be included.

The most difficult issue at the Results Operation Centre, Manyathela said, was how tough it was to get a comment from the IEC. As the current host of the Xolani Gwala radio show on 702, he was not able to interview the IEC commissioners to explain how the counting was going. However, he did understand as they were dealing with issues such as double voting and removable ink.

Marianne Merten

Marianne Merten is a senior journalist at the Daily Maverick. She believes that young journalists should ask difficult questions and get over the nerves. Photo: Chanel Retief

Daily Maverick senior journalist Marianne Merten said journalists should not “be shy to ask difficult questions”, and then ask “a second question and then follow up if the answer does not make sense”.

The questions should be short, precise and to the point. It was a politician’s job to “explain their policy positions” and answer questions.

Real politics is about the boring stuff; it is about policy,” said Merten.

Over the many years she had covered elections, the IEC had been consistent in its cordial relationship with the media. “What is special is that everyone is sharing the same space” at the results centre.

The ministers did not sit secluded with bodyguards but were given the same treatment as everyone else – one small desk, desktop computer and a few chairs. It did not matter whether you were a representative of the government or a small party, said Merten.

Reflecting on this year’s elections, she was concerned that the voter turnout was at 65%.

The voters are telling politicians something.”

At the time of writing this, it is still going to be some wait into the night at the results centre, with the dashboard showing 94% of voting stations counted so far. Journalists will continue to binge on coffee and conversation as they wait for the next IEC update. DM

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