Grand promises of peaceful elections undermined by squalid acts of violence

File picture: Timothy Bernard/African News Agency/ANA

Until politicians take bold action on their public undertaking to desist from committing inflammatory acts of intolerance during election campaigns, they will continue to undermine the agreement they have just made to abide by the electoral code of conduct.

Last Wednesday’s pledge signing-ceremony by political parties contesting the 08 May elections is the case in point highlighting this expectation. The importance of the ceremony was self-evident, not just for the Electoral Commission (IEC) that shepherds political parties and voters to the polls, but also for voters in areas overshadowed by political conflict as election observers deployed by various civil society organisations such as the Election Monitoring Network.

By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle that all leaders of political parties contesting elections attend the ceremony and pledged to abide by the electoral code of conduct. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster these politicians do so with the knowledge there could be bloody consequences as the threat of an increase in incidents of violence continues to hang over these elections. This in the context of what should be a zero-tolerance towards political intolerance, intimidation and violence.  

Inside the narrow legal frame within which the pledge to peaceful elections by political leaders has taken place this time around, their confidence in the ability of the election observers, the IEC and the Electoral Court to prevent, mediate, and adjudicate electoral disputes is a great success in our democracy given the reality that election campaigns are often emotionally charged.

However, the framework impotent when it comes to dealing with intra-party conflict. As a result, the big challenge that lies ahead is for politicians to act boldly in instilling a culture of political tolerance inside their parties in order to stop intra-party killings that have dominated the face of election violence in the last ten years.

Ahead of the 2016 local government elections, election observers pointed to an increasing number of reports of acts of political intolerance and violence, thus raising concerns that, in the 2019 elections and the by-elections during the intervening period, political killings could be in the increase across several municipalities in the majority of provinces.

Regrettably, political intolerance continue to blemish our democracy. The report of the Moerane Commission, established in KwaZulu-Natal to investigate political killings, pointed to several government failures, provincial politics and ultimately, material greed as factors that perpetuate political killings.  

Another telling recent report titled “Assassination Witness” by the Global Initiative against Transnational Crime and the Centre of Criminology at the University of Cape Town provided further insight into the problem. It reviewed over 17 000 media articles to build a database on assassinations in South Africa from 2000-2017. All the incidents identified as hits were then divided into four separate categories: political, organised crime, taxi related, and personal. Cases that fall within the political category generally targeted individuals designated as holding a political or administrative office, mostly in local government. 

According to the data, there were 291 reported political assassinations in South Africa between 2000 – 2017. These make up 22% of the total number of assassinations, over this period. Throughout the period, the average count of political assassinations is dominated by incidents in KwaZulu-Natal. The number of assassinations in Gauteng, the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga remained consistently low and similar in magnitude throughout the period.

It is the lack of evidence of reporting by community members to the police of those suspected for violating electoral law, of police investigations and prosecutions that result in conviction and imposition of harsh sentences to perpetrators that is alarming to us election observers, given the damage caused by these attacks to efforts to build peace and social cohesions in our communities. This concern is shared across civil society formations involved in election observation as personal safety weighs heavily on on-going decisions to recruit, train, and deploy personnel at polling stations in hotspost areas especially when counting and tallying of votes starts in the evening of the election day.

The number of signatories to the pledge has increased significantly this time around, raising concerns that failure by politicians take bold action could produce more violators than obedient election candidates. A total of 48 political parties will contest these elections, as 19 more parties than the 2014 general election join the race. According to the IEC, there are more than 26-million voters on the voters roll, a remarkable 47% increase since 1999.

While some voters welcome the increase as a sign of a healthy multi-party democracy, some blame what they term as the governing party’s catalogue of errors as the cause that led us to this point of free for all in politics. Meanwhile, what appears to be a common thread amongst opposition parties wooing voters through all sorts of promises is their determination to push the ANC below 50% in provinces such as Gauteng and the Northern Cape.

Expecting bold action from politicians is unreasonable. In simple dictionary meaning, when you act in a bold way, you’re taking some kind of risk; you could be risking physical danger, embarrassment, or your reputation. Whatever bold actions you take, they are confident and fearless. And that is what it entails to abide by the spirit and the latter of electoral code of conduct.

So yes, let the politicians congratulate themselves on showing up at the pledge-signing ceremony. And let them temper it with an apology to all those it will betray.

Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi is a Policy Analyst and Chairperson of the Election Monitoring Network.