South Africa’s sixth national democratic Election Day is winding down, as the majority of voting stations close at 21:00 – but it hasn’t been sunshine and roses.
Arguably the country’s most important political event since the dawn of democracy in 1994, the pressure, heightened by months fervent campaigning, reached a palpable climax on 8 May.
For South Africa, a nation spuriously stranded at the crossroads of indignation and uncertainty, prospects of a brighter future culminated in a singular sacrosanct right; to leave an indelible mark on South Africa’s future.
It’s the foundation of any democratic state worth its salt, to allow – without fear, favour or prejudice – every citizen the opportunity to decide a socio-political fate.
Sure, the theory is shrouded in profound rhetorical dogma, one perpetuated, ironically, by the powers that be. Still, it’s one day, once every five years, which affords South Africans some sort of tangible recourse; some civil outlet for life’s frustrations, many of which, within the context of this country, stem from governmental failings.
Waxing lyrical about our Constitutional rights – especially on a day like today – may likely devour what little time we have left of our hard-earned public holiday.
It is, nonetheless, important to spare it a thought. Especially when interrogating today’s events which will, undoubtedly, impact the future of every South African.
Election Day in South Africa, 8 May 2019
It was never going to be smooth sailing – not in a country
as politically divided as South Africa. Surprisingly, though, political
parties, for the most part, behaved themselves today. Disgruntled citizens,
however, threw a spanner in the works.
Reports of isolated protests and disruptions began surfacing shortly after daybreak.
In KwaZulu-Natal, two community halls, intended to be used as voting stations by the Electoral Commission (IEC), were met with flames. In Bergville, a group of protesters dug trenches around the local voting station, effectively postponing the vote. By 17:00, three voting stations in KwaZulu-Natal remained closed due to protest action.
The Eastern Cape didn’t fare much better. In Majuba Village, near Mount Frere, a protracted service delivery protest led to IEC officials being locked into their voting station, with nobody allowed in or out. Similar events were reported in kwaMadiba village near Xolobeni. As a result, three Eastern Cape voting stations failed to open.
In Vuwani, Limpopo, an on-going municipal demarcation
dispute led to disruptions and arrests.
Voting was also delayed in small-town Northern Cape. The fiercest protest action came from the most unsuspecting little settlement – the rural town of Holpan, 50 kilometres north of Kimberley. Frustrated residents, unhappy with inadequate service delivery, intimated voters and IEC staff, leading to a vicious standoff with police officers. Rubber bullets were fired, the crowd eventually dispersed and, following an uneasy intermission, the voting station reopened.
The South African Police Service (SAPS) had its hands full.
In all cases, the men and women in blue did their utmost to quell the sporadic dissidence.
But for all their hard work, there was one organisation which dropped the ball
and, in doing so, reignited tensions in even the mildest of voters.
Deferred ballots and disappearing ink; an IEC story
The Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa is
tasked with overseeing the voting process, from start to finish. With great
power comes great responsibility and, for the most part, the IEC has done a
good job in the past. Sure, there have been isolated reports of misconduct and
electoral negligence, to which the IEC has responded with swift and decisive
The 2019 election – for whatever reason – proved to be an entirely
different beast, one which would crack the IEC’s veneer of competence.
Voting stations – which were due to open at 7:00 sharp – suffered dubious operational delays. This was to be expected in a country as vast and varied as South Africa. The weather in certain provinces did little to help the situation. Regardless, the IEC got things off to a good start.
Then came the social media reports. They came like a biblical flood. Ballot paper shortages at several voting stations soon turned to dozens. The Western Cape was particularly embattled by this shortage. It disrupted and delayed the voting process, forcing the electorate to seek refuge at other stations.
Herein lays the issue, according to the IEC.
In days gone by, voters were only allowed to make their mark at their registered district stations – no exceptions. After a convoluted registration mishap in the 2016 municipal elections, the IEC toyed with the idea of allowing voters more freedom. This freedom – the ability to vote anywhere in your registered province, regardless of the designated district – proved to be calamitous.
Convenience reigned supreme. Voters made their way to the
nearest stations, ignoring the IEC’s emboldened plea to visit their stations of
This is the plausible excuse offered by the IEC; that ballot
paper shortages were exacerbated by a fundamental oversight. Stations were
supplied with a certain amount of ballot papers relative to their predicted
voter volumes, gauged by the registrar.
The issue wasn’t limited to the Western Cape. Gauteng was also hit by the great ballot paper shortage of 2019.
From Johannesburg to Pretoria West, voters complained of excruciatingly long waits. They were all informed that stations had run out of ballot papers. Most voters, tired of waiting, would move onto to the next station and so the vicious cycle continued.
Electoral Law states that ballot papers – both complete and fresh – need to be escorted by police officers, which didn’t speed the process up. Not with SAPS attempting to rescue voting stations from flames and frustrated citizens.
But the buck didn’t stop at the ballot papers. Serious issues concerning the indelible ink used to mark voters’ thumbs proved too much to bear. Voters from all corners of South Africa were baffled by the ink’s impermanent finish.
The whole point of the marking is to signify who has voted
as a way of mitigating electoral fraud and, more simply, by preventing people
from voting more than once. The rule is; one person, one vote.
So why did some voters’ ink wash off under a stream of water, or, worse, by a forceful touch? That, we don’t know.
But it is clear that this has thrown the electoral eligibility into doubt. Even more so when considering that IEC scanners – intended to effectively cross citizens off the voters’ roll after they’ve made their mark – were found to be faulty.
During a press conference on Wednesday, a clearly flustered Sy Mamabolo, the Chief Electoral Officer, admitted that the scanners were not foolproof and that there had been reports of shortages and failures.
The IEC has not directly addressed the issue, which has only
served to further fan the flames of suspicion.
Both the public and political parties alike now wait with bated breath, not only for election results to start trickling out, but for some sense of clarity regarding the day’s misgivings. Has the vote been compromised and, if so, where to from here?
Afterall, the consequences of today have the propensity to
echo in South Africa’s eternity.