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 7th of 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 newsgathering 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 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. Entitled: “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 R1.5bn 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 (or ‘flight’ as South Africans say) 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 celebre 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 the 7th of 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 from 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.’