'It's now time for the people to speak'

While the media mayhem that attended South Africa’s first two democratic elections is undoubtedly a thing of the past, there was still a blizzard of flashlights when the country’s first citizen cast his ballot on Wednesday morning.

Addressing journalists after voting for the national and provincial legislatures, President Thabo Mbeki said: “Well, I think the big day has come. The politicians have been doing a lot of talking.
I think it’s now time for the people to speak.”

“I hope that the people—indeed, all the millions who have registered, over 20-million people have registered—that they will come out today and vote; vote for the parties of their choice ... knowing that it’s a secret ballot, and knowing that they are quite safe.”

While a queue of mostly white voters watched the proceedings quietly, Jackie Ntlailane, brightly dressed in yellow, livened up the proceedings considerably with the ebullient greeting she gave the president.

“My daughter woke me early in the morning, and said ‘Please Mummy, come and see Mbeki’. I held him with my hand, and he said: ‘Are you coming to vote?’, and I said: ‘How can we not vote! We’re coming to vote—yes!’”

“I’m going to wake my madam now, to come and vote,” she added. (The term “madam” is used to refer to the mostly white employers of domestic servants in South Africa.)

In this, and 16 965 other polling stations across the country, a 14-hour stretch of voting got under way on Wednesday April 14, with few reports of logistical hitches. But, while 75% of eligible voters have registered, fears of apathy at the polls have not been completely allayed.

According to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), 37 parties are contesting the election—although only the most dedicated of political animals would able to identify all of them. Not all parties are fielding candidates at both provincial and national level.

To date, most of the public’s attention has been focused on the ruling African National Congress, the main opposition Democratic Alliance, the Inkatha Freedom Party and the New National Party. The ANC is assured of victory at the national level and in most provinces—something that has raised the spectre of de facto one-party rule in South Africa. However, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape remain wild cards.

While KwaZulu-Natal has been largely free of the violence that claimed thousands of lives in the run-up to the 1994 vote, about 30 politically related deaths have been reported since late last year—prompting an extensive deployment of security forces in the region.

Speaking at the IEC headquarters in Pretoria on Wednesday, National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi said there had been only “minor incidents of misunderstandings between persons” during the past few hours. He also denied reports of a bomb scare at Mafikeng, in the North West province. Another scare, in a Johannesburg suburb, was found to be an empty threat upon investigation.

The IEC noted that 13 presiding officers at polling stations had been relieved of their duties in KwaZulu-Natal because they had been found to be campaigning. However, it remains unclear what form this campaigning took—or which parties were responsible for it. A similar incident was reported in the northern Limpopo province.

In addition, a docket has been opened against the DA in the Western Cape—after the party was accused of illegally putting stickers bearing its logo in the identity documents of certain voters.

For many voters, however, these incidents were of remote significance as they queued on Wednesday.

“I saw a summary of what each party was standing for, and then I realised that the party that I previously thought I was going to vote for, was not standing for what I thought they were. I strongly believe that the death sentence must come back, so I voted for a party that stood for that,” said Marietha de Beer, who cast her vote at the Colbyn Park polling station. (One of the parties on the ballot sheet is the single-issue Pro Death Penalty Party.)

“I personally feel that we are not protected enough. We had a burglary, our second burglary, three days ago,” she added.

“Crime, corruption and unemployment, as well as HIV/Aids, feature prominently in this election. They are issues that are critical to most voters,” Khabele Matlosa of the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa said.

Between 30% and 40% of South Africans are unemployed. While the ANC claims that about two million new jobs have been created under its watch, this figure has been hotly disputed by opposition parties—which say a million positions have actually been lost.

The ANC has pledged to create a million new jobs through a public works programme. The DA, describing these as transient employment opportunities, countered by blanketing Pretoria and Johannesburg with campaign posters that promised “One million REAL Jobs”.

Similarly, the ANC has used its extension of worker rights to farm labourers and domestic servants as a draw card for voters. The DA campaigned on a platform that included various tax cuts, and the deregulation of a working environment that it described as having too many legal constraints.

Far from the manicured lawns of Colbyn Park, in the black settlement of Mamelodi near Pretoria, Sprinkaan Phora was skeptical about all comers: “I’ve looked. They all promise good things, but I don’t know if they’re going to make them work, or if they just want us to vote for them!”

As a result of the long tussle between the government and Aids activists over the provision of anti-retrovirals (ARVs), national policies to deal with the pandemic were central to the campaigning—following Mbeki right to the polling booth on Wednesday.

Responding to a question about the difficulty certain Aids patients were still experiencing in getting hold of ARVs under the government’s new drug-provision programme, Mbeki said: “We talked about that in the election campaign ... You were not listening? ... We are talking about elections today—we are not talking about those issues.”

The Institute for Democracy in South Africa has estimated that up to 800 000 voters could stay away from the polls because they are caring for HIV-positive relatives—or because Aids-related illnesses have made them too ill to travel.

In spite of these factors, voters interviewed appeared mostly satisfied with the outcome of the country’s first decade of democracy.

Said Mamelodi voter David Tshabalala: “Yes, there are some changes—you can see and feel them. Our sisters and brothers are staying in newly built houses, we’ve got roads developed, we’ve got schools.”

Pointing to a nearby hostel with cracked windows and peeling plaster built under the previous apartheid government, he said it was soon going to be demolished—and replaced with new housing.

Added Minnie Wille: “I was surprised after [the] 1994 election—the people were [stockpiling] candles and things like that—but nothing happened. They [the ANC government] did a good job of it up till now.

“We really need to support them—but they need opposition as well, to keep them in line, not to go the way that Zimbabwe is going.”

Zimbabwe is currently in the midst of a political and economic crisis that began at the start of 2000 with the occupation of white-owned farms.

Similar thoughts were on the mind of Gerda Louw, just a few steps behind Wille in the queue at a polling station in one of Pretoria’s affluent suburbs.

“I don’t think we’re going Zimbabwe’s route. I think we’re going the right way,” she said.—IPS

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