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‘Soft campaigning’ in South Africa must be outlawed

Political party representatives outside a voting station during the local government elections. Picture Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

Political party representatives outside a voting station during the local government elections. Picture Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Dec 23, 2021


Professor Kealeboga Maphunye

Pretoria - As South Africans reflect on the highs and lows of 2021, it will be unavoidable not to include election-related issues. South Africa’s sixth municipal election ended happily, but equally on a sad note.

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While everyone was happy to see the 2021 local government elections being declared free and fair by the Electoral Commission of South Africa, making it an acceptable and legitimate result, the sadness emanated from the fact that almost 40 deaths were recorded during the pre-election period from 2016.

The victims were mostly ANC councillors or candidates. In terms of assessing the quality of elections globally, even one election-related death undermines the integrity of an election. Overall, the electoral commission managed the election well despite the pressures it faced during the pre-election period, including such deaths, for which it is not responsible.

Ironically, the media reported how three murdered candidates won elections in their wards in Tshwane, eThekwini and Nongoma on November 1. Yet, the fact that very little condemnation, if any, has been forthcoming from all the candidates and contesting parties suggests the degree to which political intolerance and pre-election irregularities are not taken seriously in this country.

South Africa’s elections cannot afford to descend to the level of some countries in Africa and elsewhere in the world, whose elections are always viewed with suspicion or disbelief owing to numerous pre-election irregularities they experience.

Kealeboga Maphunye is a Professor of African Politics at Unisa.

In such countries, “election” usually amounts to violence, intimidation, destruction and death – businesses and institutions close, and citizens flee to the hinterlands of their countries, owing to fears of impending catastrophe once elections are held.

Any pre-election mayhem must therefore be condemned not only by the government and the electoral commission, but by the entire society. Stringent measures that culminate in immediate and successful prosecution and sentencing of the perpetrators must be the norm by the judiciary and all the law enforcement agencies.

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Such pre-election deaths and violence may be exacerbated by the fact that some individuals, notably in the ANC, whose members seemingly experience these pre-election incidents more, do not have alternative sources of income except politics.

Their desperation to occupy council seats or other positions may thus become a life-and-death matter, which the party needs to take effective measures to address.

This could enable South Africa to avert similar situations that involved pre-election tensions and political instability in countries like Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

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Another worrisome factor about South African elections is the ever-present and ever-increasing political party “tables” or gazebos outside voting stations. Such “tables” initially probably encouraged voters to remember their obligations to vote. However, they have no place in a free and fair election because they habitually flout the legally stipulated end-of-campaign periods by political parties.

They are also a strange and unfair phenomenon that is not there in many African elections. If these “tables” were to be fair for all the contestants in each election or by-election, the voting station’s vicinity would be mobbed or surrounded by as many tables as there are contestants, which would compromise the required environment that is conducive to a free and fair election as everyone would be campaigning fully on voting day.

The unfairness of allowing this practice to continue unabated is that it would benefit mostly the country’s top three political parties that can afford to mount such tables outside each voting station on election day. To ensure that South Africa complies with the SADC and AU-sanctioned practices for holding impartial elections with integrity, all parties and citizens clearly must confront this unfair practice and to discontinue it. If any law needs amendment for this, then Parliament should initiate legislative reform.

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Similarly, South Africa cannot continue to allow political party agents and voters to don full or partial party regalia on election day, as this also prejudices or intimidates other voters and electoral officials during voting. Moreover, this may be regarded as “soft campaigning“ on voting day, as in the case of the ”tables“ outside voting stations.

The international practice of outlawing such tables and party regalia aims to discourage parties from flouting the moratorium on campaigning, which ends at midnight on the day preceding elections in many countries.

The trouble with continuing to allow such practices is that South Africa will increasingly get away with practices that have long been prohibited in many countries by election management bodies who realised the unfairness of allowing such practices. Besides, civic education by the electoral commission and civil society organisations can, with the proactive support of political parties, drum up sufficient support for each electoral event to ensure that voters go and cast their votes on voting days.

Contrary to traditional justifications in South Africa, that disallowing these practices will discourage voters from going to cast their votes, this might not happen, as the country is now an established electoral democracy that has ratified international best election management instruments such as the AU Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which promotes elections with integrity.

Pretoria News