In the six months leading up to South African’s fifth democratic election on 7 May, 76 incidents of election-related violence had taken place. These were mostly clashes between supporters of rival political parties and communities who used the elections as a national platform to air their grievances.
During voter registration in February, police had to close three registration stations in Bekkersdal as angry residents burned down municipal offices, blocked roads and clashed with police. Officials from the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) were also reportedly chased from the area. This followed after weeks of violent protests, with people demanding better service delivery and the removal of their mayor.
The final voter registration weekend of 2014 was marred by violent incidents between political parties in Khayelitsha, a service delivery protest in Ga-Rankuwa and the burning of an IEC registration station and materials in Taung.
Clashes between the ANC and the National Freedom Party (NFP) broke out in Ntshongweni, west of Durban, when members of the ANC allegedly chased away campaigning NFP members.
In the two days before the election, tents and buildings that had been demarcated as polling stations were set alight in Bekkersdal, the Gugulethu informal settlement in Gauteng, Sterkspruit in the Eastern Cape and in Richards Bay. Individuals who had formed a mob were arrested on their way to torching another polling station, and IEC officials were threatened in Lorraine and Maruleng in Limpopo, Ulundi in KwaZulu-Natal and the Siqalo informal settlement in the Western Cape.
On election day itself, five protests disrupted the opening of polling stations according to the IEC, and one ANC supporter was killed in KwaDukuza in KwaZulu-Natal. Another death was reported in KwaMashu in the same province. There had been no such incidents during the previous national election in 2009, although seven protests were recorded on election day in the 2011 local government election.
During this election, 97 people were arrested for election-related offences on voting day, and in Bekkersdal two IEC officials had to be rescued by police when a crowd attacked them after voting had closed. In Tzaneen, two people were arrested after they attacked police, election officials and party agents and damaged voting material. Violent protests also broke out in Alexandra in Gauteng shortly after the elections.
Thousands of people were killed before the first democratic elections in South Africa held in 1994, and levels of political violence and intimidation have dropped significantly since then. Subsequent elections saw far lower rates of violence and intimidation, and violence has not been seen as a specific risk to the electoral process in South Africa.
Unsurprisingly, the most hotly contested provinces experienced the highest number of incidents, and violence increased where dominant party power had been confronted by newcomers.
According to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) public violence monitoring project, of the 76 incidents recorded since October last year, two-thirds turned violent. Half of the recorded incidents took place in metropolitan areas, 29% in rural areas and 20% in small towns. Gauteng (29%) and the Western Cape (21%) experienced the highest number of election-related incidents, followed by the Eastern Cape (16%), KwaZulu-Natal (11%), Limpopo (8%) and North West Province (7%). Where the political affiliation of perpetrators is known, the main perpetrating party is the ANC (52%), followed by the EFF (26%).
While violence was not widespread enough to have significantly influenced the outcome of this year’s national elections, it must be considered whether it would escalate during the 2016 local government elections. There will be more at stake for the 4 277 councillors who want to keep their jobs; and those who want to challenge them for those jobs. For many local politicians and officials, their government salaries and access to state resources stand between a relatively comfortable existence and poverty. This factor has already fed into local-level political violence. Worryingly, an estimated 120 political killings have taken place since 2003, mostly in KwaZulu-Natal, involving local-level politicians and officials.
Although there has been an upsurge in community protests and labour unrest since 2009, these have mostly been peaceful. However, communities who feel that government officials aren’t taking their concerns seriously enough are increasingly using violence as a political tool. As this continues, protests and violence may escalate at election time.
One of the worrying consequences is that the IEC has increasingly become the target of violence. During many of the incidents aimed at the IEC, the perpetrators were reported to be community groups without specified political affiliation. Almost two-thirds of the perpetrators were such community members who used the elections to highlight their grievances with service delivery; rather than individuals involved in conflict between rival political parties.
Monitoring of public violence must be improved to allow the IEC and other agencies to identify ‘hot spots’ well in advance. It will also be important to strengthen the dispute- and conflict-resolution capacity of the IEC, local governments and agencies such as the police so that their responses are appropriate, and serve to reduce conflict rather than intensify it. Action needs to be taken as soon as possible, so that election-related violence does not pose a future threat to South Africa’s proud track record of free and fair polls.
Written by Lizette Lancaster, Manager, Crime and Justice Information Hub and Rushdi Nackerdien, Independent Elections Consultant, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria