Something hangs over South Africa’s next election – the threat of political murder

The parties are now gearing up for the fight, but they do so with the knowledge there could be bloody consequences. 

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South Africa is heading for a general election – the sixth since the end of apartheid. No-one knew quite when it would be until President Cyril Ramaphosa almost casually dropped the date into a discussion in New York last month. As he told an interviewer: “The ANC is finding traction once again. And I’m confident that it should be able to win the next elections quite easily, which will be held next year, before May of 2019.”

The parties are now gearing up for the fight, but they do so with the threat of violence hanging over them. The country has always had a high incidence of violence, and a long list of political assassinations during the apartheid era. These killing have returned – with a vengeance. They are no longer designed to maintain a racist state, but rather to settle scores.

A Commission of Inquiry – the Moerane commission – reported on political killings in KwaZulu-Natal after two years of work. Their report was described as something of a damp squib. “Despite spanning 424 pages of testimony from more than 60 witnesses, including the families of victims, political parties, the security forces and civil society, the report contains 13 bland recommendations that, while making broadly helpful proposals, hold nobody directly responsible for the killings,” observed the Mail & Guardian, one of the country’s most respected newspapers.

This is hardly surprising. Most of the murders were committed by one faction of the ruling party against another: attempts to gain political office to take control of lucrative local government contracts and the money that could be skimmed off. But the scale of the killings is horrific. The Commission’s stated that: “the apparently never-ending murder of politicians in KwaZulu-Natal is a symptom of a serious pathology in the Province’s body politic.”

Weak although the Commission’s report may have been, it highlighted the relationship between the political establishment, criminals and the targeted killings that have taken place. It outlined the nexus of corruption and murder.

“There was evidence to the fact that state institutions, particularly security institutions, are being manipulated by politicians for political ends. There was evidence that criminal elements are recruited by politicians to achieve political ends, resulting in a complex matrix of criminal and political associations that also lead to the murder of politicians. Evidence that senior political functionaries in the province employed private and out of province police to resolve criminal incidents, involving them personally, in the province does not give much confidence in the ability of the local security establishment.”

The Independent Election Commission (IEC), which oversees the electoral process warned the Commission that there is a correlation between electoral and political competition which “impairs the public’s willingness to engage with democracy”.

What is disheartening for South African democrats is that the IEC has shown so little willingness to engage proactively in ensuring that the electoral process is a level playing field. To be successful such action should be taken in the months and years running up to the polling; not just on the day of the election itself. The last general election in 2014 was flawed.

There was clear evidence that when voters went to the polls in 2014, they were offered inducements in the shape of government handouts. As the Mail & Guardian put it: “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.” 

This is reinforced by huge government adverts, in ANC colours and reflecting ANC slogans, that lined the highways prior to the 2014 election. Opposition political adverts on state run television were also delayed, blunting their message. Sections of the apparently independent media were, and some still are controlled by pro-government companies, again biasing the outcome

On election day, I witnessed the intimidation of voters by pro-government demonstrations, complete with loudspeaker vans, within feet of the lines of voters queuing to cast their ballots. Such activities were explicitly banned by the IEC on polling day, but election agents were distinctly unenthusiastic about calling the police to enforce the law.

Will these be allowed to disfigure the 2019 election? Many will resist the blandishments of the ANC and vote with their conscience – sick of the years of corruption and the poor delivery of homes, water and above all jobs. But others are likely to be sufficiently intimidated not to back the party of their choice. Britain, and its European and Commonwealth partners, could go a long way towards ensuring that the elections are not rigged if they are prepared to send observer missions well in advance of the voting. South Africans paid too high a price for their politics to be deformed by dubious or even illegal manipulation.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.