Ballots and bullets

Launching Democracy in South Africa
March 22, 1996

We live in a topsy-turvy world. In the UK we hold elections every five years which are indubitably free and fair. They are efficiently run, and there are rarely accusations of votes being lost, stolen or strayed. Equally manifestly, large numbers of those eligible do not even bother to vote, and a majority of those who do, do not feel the outcome has expressed "the will of the people". In South Africa, on the other hand, the first democratic, non-racial elections in April 1994 were greeted with euphoria. Yet they were run with an ineptitude that beggars belief, and there are very serious doubts whether they can be considered to have been "free and fair", despite the accolades of the international community.

For those accustomed to voting in the decorum of the local church or school, the conditions would have appeared totally unacceptable. Large numbers of polling stations were ramshackle and possibly unauthorised, without electricity, telephones, or even, on occasion, toilets; many voting officers and monitors were untrained or even absent. Temporary voter cards were issued to "obviously under-aged youth" by apparently intimidated officials. Hundreds of thousands of ballot papers did not reach their destination. In some areas there was a 300 per cent turn-out.

Most seriously of all, in the run-up to the vote, large parts of the country were no-go zones, which members of minority parties entered quite literally at risk of their lives: white farmers did not allow ANC or PAC canvassers to approach their labourers; in some townships ANC and PAC activists prevented National or Democratic Party meetings, while, most shocking of all, in KwaZulu-Natal, in the weeks before the election, six voter education workers were killed in Ndwedwe. In the Creighton district another 16 youths, also engaged in voter education, were murdered, while in the week before the election three ANC activists canvassing in the KwaZulu capital of Ulundi were massacred in full view of the police. Until the very last moment, South Africa teetered on the brink of civil war as the far right whites and the Inkatha Freedom Party held the country to ransom and threatened to boycott the elections. When the polling was over, vast numbers of votes went astray or were ruled invalid, ballot boxes could not be reconciled, and the counting went on for over a week. Not surprisingly, there were widespread rumours of deals and negotiated settlements.

Nevertheless, R.W. Johnson, the coeditor with Lawrence Schlemmer of Launching Democracy, an analysis of South Africa's "first open election", concludes, in a hard-hitting critique of the Independent Electoral Commission: "There seems little doubt that in a crude sense the election did represent the will of the people. For all the imperfections and irregularities in the ballot, it seemed beyond dispute that the most popular party, the ANC, got the most votes; that the N[ational] P[arty] was truly the second most popular party; and that the IFP came a genuine third." Whatever the shortcomings, and they were shocking and serious, no-one who stood in the long queues of patiently waiting, first-time voters or saw the televised footage can doubt "the miracle" of South Africa's first democratic nonracial ballot.

There is more concrete evidence, however, on which the editors draw: a variety of opinion polls commissioned before (and, in the final chapter, after) the election, deriving from a major research project, sponsored by Oscar Dhlomo's Institute for Multi-party Democracy, to monitor the elections. This gives Launching Democracy an air of scientific authority. The abundance of the poll data will be the envy of many a psephologist, while its analysis appears meticulous. The chapters contain the usual scholarly apparatus of tables, graphics, endnotes and appendices, and there is little doubt that the three regional chapters are, for the most part, sophisticated and discerning analyses by acknowledged experts. Robert Matte, Hermann Giliomee and Wilmot James perceptively map the complexities of the election in Western Cape - where, to the surprise of the outside world, the NP, so long identified with apartheid, won the Coloured vote. Some analysis of the press would have been illuminating here in view of their finding that most National Party voters gained their information from the mass media (unlike ANC supporters who were far more dependent on oral communication). Graeme Gotz and Mark Shaw look at the meaning that the elections held for first-time voters in Gauteng, by moving beyond the count and exploring, with sociological sensitivity, "the barely visible, often grass-roots, dynamics and processes that shaped the outcome, or, more accurately shaped the people that made the outcome what it is".

In a generally judicious if now rather dated chapter, Alexander Johnston examines the roots of the violence in Natal, although it is rather extraordinary that, in line with the rest of the volume, he barely makes mention of the relationship between Inkatha and the Third Force, and still argues that there is no evidence to argue that the casualties were "initiated and orchestrated by one or both sides". R.W. Johnson is at his journalistic best in his description of the mayhem accompanying the election in KwaZulu-Natal.

At the heart of the book, however, is a crucial question and a different agenda, which is discussed at length in the penultimate chapter by Johnson, but raised by almost all the contributors - how "free" and how "fair" were the elections? "The major indictment of the quality and adequacy of the election emerging from our results," the editors state half-way through the book, "lies in the strong and consistent evidence of constraints on the exercise of free voting choice, particularly among Africans. Taking a rough average of the responses across the replies (to questions about constraints on the exercise of the vote) would suggest that, broadly, one-quarter of Africans, one-fifth of Indians and some 10 to 15 per cent of coloured and white voters might have had their behaviour distorted by factors which cannot be counted as normal in a democracy." Although "the proportions fearing violence and intimidation were not large in overall terms, [they] could have had important marginal effects on the election" and especially for the minority parties. And, even more importantly, according to Schlemmer and Johnson, were "the more subtle and less directly coercive factors which affected the voters". While democracy may have been launched in South Africa, they conclude, the society has a long way to go before a democratic and tolerant culture can be said to be established.

No observer of South Africa over the years would wish to dispute either the disturbing description or the conclusions. What then of the explanation? Here one can only characterise the analysis as distorted by the almost visceral hostility to the ANC which seeps insidiously through the text. It would, unfortunately, require a detailed textual exegesis to show this. Here the most important examples must suffice. Central to Johnson's assessment of whether the elections were "free" and "fair" are the results in KwaZulu-Natal. A somewhat convoluted argument leads him to believe that, in fact, the election results which gave the IFP a narrow victory were "crudely" correct, despite allegations on both sides of widespread fraud. This leaves him having to explain the marked discrepancy between this result and two pre-election opinion polls - which gave the ANC a 3:2 and a 2:1 lead. To explain the extraordinary swing, he invokes what he calls the "lie factor": IFP members were so intimidated by the pollsters - who, being young educated and urban, had the "classic ANC profile" - that they dissimulated their voting intentions on a massive scale. "What this translated to on the ground was the large numbers of the old and illiterate rural poor, especially women, being extremely frightened of young ANC 'comrades' and the ferocious pressures they could exert - and frightened, too, no doubt, of the countervailing pressures exerted by the IFP chiefs and indunas. It looks very much as if the most scared and vulnerable and the most archetypally IFP - a large section of the KZN rural electorate hid their political sympathies with non-committal answers and then massively voted for the IFP." "No doubt", indeed.

Dismissed thus in a half-sentence, the life and death power of chiefs and headmen is never systematically explored, and we are led to believe here and elsewhere that the major culprits for the atmosphere of intimidation and fear surrounding the election were the "aggressively persuasive" ANC "comrades."

Now there is no doubt of the coercive behaviour of many ANC cadres, and that atrocities were committed on both sides, but to place the main onus for the intimidation in the months leading up to the election (let alone in the 1980s) on the "comrades" can only be described as extraordinary. One looks in vain for some account of the now well-proven collaboration between Inkatha and the top brass in the security forces in creating an environment of terror and fear in KwaZulu-Natal. All we are given is a careful balancing act: "This is not the place to attempt a proper evaluation of the claims and counter-claims, but the scale of political violence ... seems to suggest that some (or all) of the claims were probably true."

At a time when South Africa's top generals have again appeared in the courts charged with direct involvement with Inkatha in one of the more gruesome mass murders in Natal, and fresh evidence has come to light of their gun-running to the IFP and their plans to assassinate ANC members, this really will not do. It puts an ironic gloss on the editors' description of the "loyalty and professionalism" of the armed forces.

In the end, the value of opinion polls is measured by the uses to which they are put. Caveat emptor.

Shula Marks is professor of Southern African history, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Launching Democracy in South Africa: The First Open Election, April 1994

Editor - R. W. Johnson and Lawrence Schlemmer
ISBN - 0 300 06391 1
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 412

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