Threats and killings: Just another SA election

Threats, disrupted meetings and killings have tarnished campaigning for South Africa’s elections, as the country struggles to fully overcome the legacy of violence in politics.

An election monitoring group recently listed 40 incidents linked to the campaign for April 22 elections, mostly “at the level of intimidation or clashes”, coordinator Derrick Marco said.

However five politicians have been killed since January, four in KwaZulu-Natal, which was a hotbed of political clashes between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party from 1980 to 1995.

The political climate has improved enormously since the first all-race elections in 1994, said Mary de Haas, an independent researcher into violence in the province.

But she added: “Threats, intimidation and deaths still occur around election time.”

This year the concerns are different due to the creation of an ANC splinter group, the Congress of the People (Cope), which has led to new complaints about blocked campaign rallies and shredded election posters, with reports of scuffles emerging every week.

“There are more concerns now than in 2004 simply because of the opening up of the political space,” said Marco.

The ANC now holds a two-thirds majority in Parliament and is expected to easily win again, although with a smaller margin.

According to David Bruce of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, political violence in South Africa runs deeper than political bickering.

“There is this history of the use of violence as a way of expressing yourself politically and achieving political objectives,” he said.

“There is a historical acceptance of violence as a legitimate mechanism for expressing grievances.”

Under apartheid, the ANC was a liberation movement bent on destabilising the apartheid regime and making the townships ungovernable. At the time, erecting barriers of burning tyres or attacking public buildings were seen as political acts.

Fifteen years after the downfall of the white-minority regime, protests are still marred by violent incidents that provoke little public concern.

In one recent incident, angry residents of a poor neighbourhood took to throwing stones at passing cars to protest poor public services in their area.

Local radio stations reported the protest only in passing, as part of its traffic report.

The language of violence extends all the way into national politics.

Supporters of ANC leader and presidential favourite Jacob Zuma have declared they would “kill” to defend him, while he rouses crowds with his trademark Awlethu Mshini Wam. ANC officials say the song is a legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Bruce says the violence is not just a by-product of South Africa’s history, but a reflection of public frustrations and the lack of other ways to make their voices heard.

“With democratisation, there was this idea that there would be a consultative government, but in many ways it was more theory than practice,” he said.

In the town of Khutsong, public anger has simmered for years over an administrative decision to declare it outside the border of the rich province of Gauteng, leaving it in a poorer province.

Since 2005 residents have boycotted local elections, burnt houses of local leaders and prevented schools from running, bringing the area to its knees until lawmakers this year moved the borders back, returning them to Gauteng.

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