ANALYSIS | David Bruce: essentially peaceful election but violence still overshadows South Africa’s political life


Due to the continued role played by violence in political life in South Africa, it cannot be said that the elections were entirely free and fair, writes David Bruce.

Despite the low voter turnout and various other issues, there are reasons to consider the 2021 municipal elections to have been successful. This is in part due to state agencies responsible for ensuring the integrity of the electoral process, including the Independent Electoral Commission and the security forces. Most of the available evidence indicates that they primarily acted within their mandate to facilitate voter participation and ensure a level playing field for the political parties and candidates who participated.

Voter satisfaction with the electoral process is an indication that it was managed effectively manner.

Unfortunately, due to the continued role played by violence in political life in South Africa, it cannot be said that the elections were entirely free and fair.

Political assassinations

As of September 9, when the election date was announced, 11 people were killed in eight incidents which were apparently politically motivated.

As per established patterns, KwaZulu-Natal was the worst affected province, accounting for five of the incidents, in which eight people died. Six of the deaths in three incidents occurred in the eThekwini metro in KwaZulu-Natal.

Along with eThekwini and KwaZulu-Natal more broadly, the other area that stood out the most was Tshwane, in Gauteng, with two ostensibly political assassinations after September 9. Another murder at North West, in October, could also have been linked to the elections.

READ | 2021 municipal elections: KZN’s murderous politics may turn bloodier

Contrary to what we see in other southern African countries, the heart of the phenomenon of political violence in South Africa is not the clashes between partisan groups or the actions of state security agents, but targeted assassinations or drive-by shootings. This is an ongoing problem in South Africa, especially KwaZulu-Natal, although all provinces are affected by violence.

According to a recent report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, these murders have taken place on average 31 per year over the past six years (2015-2020). Of the 185 murders recorded during this period, 56% (103) took place in KwaZulu-Natal.

The eleven deaths in the seven weeks following the announcement of the election date indicate that the municipal elections contributed to a small but significant increase in the rate of these murders.

The rate at which these killings are taking place generally increases in the run-up to elections. But they are not strictly an election-related phenomenon. Instead, they continue to be a part of the reality of political life in South Africa.

Role of bullying

On election day, protests disrupted the electoral process. In addition to the low voter turnout, one expression of public discontent was that there were areas, notably in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, where protesters sought to disrupt access to the offices of vote and intimidate members of the public against voting.

In some of these incidents, residents dug trenches in the roads to prevent access to polling stations. But these protests appear to have taken place in just a few dozen over 23,000 polling stations. And it seems that the vote ultimately unfolded in many of those where disruption had taken place.

These disruptions were probably not the primary means by which intimidation and violence impacted the election. More important but generally less visible is the role that intimidation plays in determining who runs and does not run for office, and how vigorously candidates compete for political office. Bullying, however, generally remains invisible to the public, unless it translates into violence in the form of murder and attempted murder.

There was some intimidating media coverage during the election.

On polling day, the Inkatha Freedom Party alleged that one of his candidates was intimidated and harassed at KwaXimba in eThekwini. Various independent candidates for eThekwini have also alleged that they had received death threats and that their posters had been torn down on several occasions. The People’s Congress (COPE) also alleged that their posters were torn down on several occasions and that they were the subject of other acts of intimidation in several districts of Gauteng.

The limited media coverage of threats against candidates, or other forms of coercion, could be taken to suggest that political parties and independent candidates were able to solicit votes largely without intimidation. But media coverage is unlikely to have provided the full picture.

READ | “We are going strong against this phenomenon” – Cele says task force will investigate political violence in Tshwane

Candidates and their supporters are not necessarily at great risk of intimidation simply by running for office. The risk of intimidation increases dramatically when they are perceived as a serious political threat to a political incumbent or others who consider themselves “able” to win or obtain seats during the election. It is in these circumstances that they are likely to become the target of intimidation and actions, such as the destruction of campaign posters, intended to disrupt their campaigns.

To what extent independent candidates, or new political parties, posed a real challenge to the political power of the ANC, or other established parties, can now be more clearly assessed from the election results. Based on evidence from previous elections, it is likely that a survey of some of the top performing new parties and independent candidates would reveal that bullying was a larger problem in this election than has been recognized to date.

Bullying can intensify during an election period, although it is not specific to them. In an event unrelated to the election, a former deputy mayor of Howick, who on Sunday announced her move from the ANC to the DA and was not a candidate for the election, said she had recently received death threats. But, she said, she had received it several times over the years, in part due to her opposition to corruption.

Out of 54 local elected officials who responded to a 2017 investigation conducted by the South African Local Government Association, 66% said they had experienced some form of intimidation. About the same proportion of the threats they reported came from members of their own parties and from rival political parties. Competition over the elections was only one of the reasons for these threats.

Political assassinations and the more widespread but less visible problem of political intimidation are therefore not separate phenomena but are intimately linked to each other. They are part of the repertoire of strategies involved in obtaining and exploiting the economic opportunities attached to political power in South Africa. In turn, they are part of a larger phenomenon of violence linked to corruption and organized crime.

We must fight against political assassinations and intimidation

The targets of political assassinations include rivals for political office, some of whom are involved in competing relationships of corruption or patronage. They are also local officials or councilors who are seen as a threat, or an obstacle, to the ability of politicians or local officials to engage in corrupt practices.

READ | Our point of view: No room for political violence in our battered province

Linked to the economic realities of South Africa, the political office serves in many cases as an instrument to advance personal economic interests. But we cannot wait for our underlying economic problems to be resolved to deal with the problem of political assassinations and intimidation.

It is imperative that the issue of political assassinations and intimidation be addressed more urgently. This is necessary to enable the emergence of a new generation of political leaders committed to serving the public interest. Potentially popular and effective political leaders who want to serve their communities should not face the threat of intimidation and deadly violence.

– David Bruce is an independent researcher who has written extensively on political violence in South Africa. He assisted the United Nations Development Program in its program to support the IEC in the 2021 local elections.

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