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Editorial: The not-so-secret ballot

In 2016, after meeting with several local government hopefuls, Thabo Mbeki refused to be drawn on whom he would vote for in the municipal elections. “The candidates here came in to say two things; one, that I must vote. So I’ve agreed with that; I’ll vote tomorrow. The second message was that I must vote for the ANC, and I told them that’s a secret.”

At the time, Mbeki may have been playing political games, but his principle was sound: the secret ballot is the foundation of every modern democracy.

This week when Mbeki visited the ANC pavilion at the Rand Show (yes, the Rand Show still happens), he signed a pledge to vote next month. He subsequently asked — in jest — if this meant that his vote was no longer a secret.

It was.

No voter should ever have to reveal whom they voted for; nor should any voter fear that their choice of vote will be revealed to anyone.

The reasons for this are obvious. A genuinely secret ballot helps to prevent intimidation, blackmail and voter fraud. So important is this principle that it is enshrined in Article 21.3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “The will of the people … shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which … shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

In South Africa, this principle is under serious threat. A new survey by Afrobarometer, Africa’s leading polling agency, shows that 68% of South Africans are not confident that their vote really is secret, and that they must therefore exercise caution at the ballot box.

The Electoral Commission of South Africa will doubtless argue that this fear is unfounded, and indeed there is little evidence in the public domain to support it. No matter: even the perception that the secrecy of the ballot has been compromised is enough to change voter behaviour and open the door for unscrupulous leaders to pressure and intimidate voters.

This lack of trust in one of the cornerstones of South Africa’s democracy is of grave concern — and, with the general election just two weeks away, it might be too late to win that trust back.

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