As Cape Town voters queued at the polls in pouring rain, in Johannesburg sunny skies were the order of the day. The contrast could be viewed as a symbol of the stark difference between this year’s local government elections, held in the wake of crumbling municipalities, rampant corruption and a deadly pandemic, and the polls in 2016.
By noon today (Monday), 3.5 million voters had cast their ballots in the local government elections – excluding special votes.
While it’s too early to tell whether voter turnout is lower this year, the Electoral Commission (IEC) said during a press briefing at the National Results Operations Centre (ROC) in Tshwane on Monday that voting had been off to a good start with many voting stations reporting a strong turnout from early in the day when stations opened at 7am.
Polling stations had a new look. Sanitisers, face masks and temperature readings ushered in “the new normal”, while some voting stations had transformed themselves into hybrid destinations where one could vote, donate blood, grab a hot cup of coffee and even get a Covid-19 vaccine, as at the station in Ward 88 in Johannesburg.
The IEC partnered with the Department of Health to set up 1,000 pop-up vaccination sites next to voting stations across South Africa, while Covid-19 compliance officers were a new addition.
Voter management devices
The IEC added yet another new feature to this election – voter management devices (VMDs) to replace the old “zip-zip” machines. The new addition, however, may have caused some hiccups in the voting process.
Responding to queries that faulty VMDs were slowing down the voting process, Chief Electoral Officer Sy Mamabolo said the devices were “functioning well overall”.
Mamabolo said about 10 VMDs across the country had experienced “technical glitches”, though he did not elaborate on which voting stations were affected.
“At a point in the morning we had 29,000 of them connected on our area point network,” said Mamabolo. Approximately 40,000 devices had been procured.
When asked how voter turnout compared to that of the 2016 election, Mamabolo said it was impossible to make a comparison as the VMDs, which provide real-time data, were not in use then.
The leader of the Democratic Alliance, John Steenhuisen, pleaded with voters on Monday to “hold the line” and not give up as long voting queues in Nelson Mandela Bay were caused by technical glitches on the IEC side. Steenhuisen said the DA filed a complaint about the “collapse of the voter management system” and has pleaded with the IEC to switch to a manual system. He said these problems already became apparent during voter registration weekend.
While some things were new, others stayed the same.
A presiding officer in eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality was arrested after allegedly stuffing marked ballots into a ballot box. Mashinini said the matter, which is being dealt with by the police, did not affect voting and was “a testament to the inbuilt safeguards in the voting process that also include an active role for party and independent candidate agents”.
The ANC in KwaZulu-Natal released a statement condemning the incident, which it said occurred in Ward 93 at uMbumbulu.
“The official was apprehended by an ANC party agent, and the matter was promptly reported to his superiors and law enforcement agencies,” the party said.
Mamabolo said the occurrence was a “serious offence” akin to “stealing an election”.
In another incident, Newzroom Afrika journalist Ziniko Mhlaba was arrested at a voting station in Soweto for allegedly interfering with the work of the presiding officer.
Police spokesperson Brigadier Vish Naidoo said Mhlaba was released after the matter was “escalated to the provincial commissioner of Gauteng”.
Addressing the incident during the press briefing at the ROC, Mashinini said the IEC “regretted” the incident and an investigation would be instituted.
In Moretele in the North West, a member of a political party was arrested after he “interrupted the voting process”. In Taung, also in the North West, the IEC laid charges against a presiding officer after he opened a ballot box that had been sealed.
In KwaZulu-Natal, 20 voting stations opened late because of community protests in Camperdown and Umdloti, where the SAPS intervened. At Elungeni Primary School in KwaMaphumulo Ward 3, gates to the voting station were locked by the community. The police broke the lock so voters and officials could gain access.
And in the Eastern Cape, 19 voting stations remained closed because of community unrest. Protesters had reportedly dug trenches to prevent IEC staff and voters from accessing the stations.
In Limpopo, a hailstorm delayed the opening of voting stations in Giyani, while in Cape Town, despite heavy rain, there were no reports of delayed opening times at voting stations.
While there was no load shedding, power cuts disrupted voting in parts of Limpopo and the Northern Cape.
Helen Zille lays assault charge after removal
The chairperson of the Democratic Alliance’s Federal Council, Helen Zille, laid a charge of assault against the police after she was physically removed from a voting station on Monday afternoon.
Video taken 1 November, 2021. Supplied
Police removed Zille from the Fernwood Primary School voting station in Bethelsdorp.
Zille told the police that she walked down the line of people waiting to vote, asking them to be patient and wait to cast their ballot. However, when she got to the front of the queue, the ANC observers accused her of canvassing.
According to a police report, Zille alleged that a warrant officer instructed her to leave the premises and threatened to arrest her and put her in the back of a police vehicle. She was then “frog-marched” out of the premises. Zille said the police officer twisted her arm and pushed her. The cellphone that her colleague was using to film the incident was allegedly taken by the police.
Janine Schoun (46) from Cape Town laid a charge of theft of a cell phone against the police. She was in the parking area at the Fernwood Park Primary School in Soudien Road in Bethelsdorp when she noticed a police official pushing Zille out of the gate. She went closer and took out her cellphone and recorded the incident.
Schoun claims a police officer approached her and grabbed her phone and walked back to the voting station. The phone was later returned to her.
“I can confirm that a charge of assault was registered by [Helen Zille] at the Bethelsdorp Police Station,” said national police spokesperson Brigadier Vish Naidoo.
In KwaZulu-Natal there were allegations of fraud, vandalism, physical altercations, community protests and traditional leadership disputes disrupting voting stations.
The IEC said several voting stations had opened late, one of which was KwaNyavu in Mkhambathini Municipality, where there was a dispute about traditional leadership.
The IFP released a statement alleging its Ward 1 candidate, Percy Zungu, and his party agents had been attacked in kwaXimba, in eThekwini.
“The IFP candidate and party agents are currently at the police station and fearful of returning to the voting stations, due to the threats allegedly made by ANC supporters,” the party said.
The Western Cape IEC said voting was off to a “good start”, but rain could affect the process. Michael Hendrickse, an electoral officer in the Western Cape, said the vast majority of the more than 1,500 voting stations in the province had opened on time.
In Tshwane, Mayor Randall Williams was one of the first people to cast his vote at the NG Kerk in Lynwood, Pretoria. Meanwhile, voting at the Mamelodi East library in Ward 16 got off to a slow start with mainly pensioners trickling in to cast their ballots. – Additional Reporting by Peter Mothiba. DM