2014 General Elections: Are South Africa's Poor Free to Choose the Political Party of their Choice?

3 Oct 2013

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There is some reason to believe that the level of political freedom enjoyed by more affluent South Africans isn’t enjoyed by people in poorer communities, argues David Bruce, an independent consultant conducting research on behalf of the Community Agency for Social Enquiry on political intimidation in the run up to South Africa’s 2014 general elections.

There are many poor communities “where the established system is one where a dominant party governs in that area and where people are afraid to openly express support for other parties,” contends David Bruce.

SACSIS' Fazila Farouk explores the issue further with Bruce.

Transcript of Interview

FAZILA FAROUK: Welcome to the South African Civil Society Information Service, I’m Fazila Farouk in Johannesburg.

South Africans are going to the polls next year to vote in the country’s 2014 general elections. After two decades, the country’s governing tripartite alliance is probably not as strong as it once was given the fact that the ruling ANC has not quite delivered on the promise of a better life to poor South Africans.

Now related to the dissatisfaction within the ruling alliance structures is the fact that there are lots of new political movements and parties that are emerging on the ground in South Africa. One, for example, is disgruntled former leader of the ANC youth league, Julius Malema’s new political party the Economic Freedom Fighters.

Now with the emergence of all these new movements and parties on the ground in the run up to the elections next year, what we have is far more choice available to people in terms of seeking to find a party that much more closely represents their aspirations in life and, you know, them having the option to vote for that party.

But what kind of freedom do people really have on the ground when they’re out there thinking about who to vote for when new players come into the political arena and try to woo voters away from dominant parties in particular areas.

It’s not as cut and dry and as simple as many of us might think it is. The situation is pretty fraught on the ground, particularly, in poor communities because they represent the strongest and largest voting block in the country. They have the power to change the face of politics in South Africa and the nature of our democracy.

With us in the studio this morning, we have David Bruce. David is an independent researcher who’s currently doing some work for the Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE)  and the project they’re focusing on actually looks at how poor people or poor communities are engaging with the political process in the run up to the 2014 elections.

Welcome to SACSIS David.

DAVID BRUCE: Thanks.

FAZILA FAROUK: I’d like to talk to you about an article that you wrote last week in the newspaper -- in the Mail and Guardian. You talk about political intolerance and your article specifically talks about the ANC engaging in coercive action to retain its majority and to ensure that people continue to vote for it.

Can you talk about what’s happening on the ground, you know, with the new shifts and changes in the political landscape and why it is you’re looking at “political intolerance” in particular?

DAVID BRUCE: Right. Okay.

Well I think just the first thing to say is that at this point we don’t know what is going to happen next - in next years election. That in the 2009 election, the ANC’s share of the votes was 65.9%, and at this point it isn’t clear that the ANC will, you know, lose a significant proportion of voters’ support. So it might…it’s not implausible that it might even strengthen its position.

But I think what the project is…the basis for the project is some kind of sense that there is the potential - or there is the likelihood - of greater contestation…around the 2014 election.

And so, also in addition that, in some ways insofar as there has been contestation in previous elections, it’s in some ways been around the vote of more affluent South Africans. And so what seems to be likely is that increasingly in the future, we will see greater contestation around with the parties jockeying for the support of poorer people.

In some ways, well, I think the fundamental point is that poorer people far outnumber wealthier people in South Africa. And so if parties are serious about contesting power in South Africa they have to be…they have to be -- to take seriously the challenge of winning the support of poorer voters.

Some of the parties that we have seem to be more explicitly orientated towards winning the support of poorer voters, such as, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Workers and Socialist Party.

But, you know, some of the parties…a party like the DA, the Democratic Alliance, has managed to establish itself as the major opposition party, but the sense is that in some ways its reached some kind of ceiling in terms of the amount of support that it can obtain, if it purely focuses on the kind of middle class or the vote of more affluent people.

And so, the question is, you know…because I think from the perspective of many middle class South Africans there is a sense of political freedom in South Africa that at election time people are free to vote for the parties that they wish to vote for. But I think that there is some kind of…something of a tendency amongst more affluent South Africans to assume that their own experiences are shared by all people in South Africa. And there is some reason to believe that the level of political freedom that more affluent South Africans enjoy isn’t enjoyed by people in poorer - in all poorer - communities at least.

FAZILA FAROUK: Now in the article that you wrote in the Mail and Guardian, you single the ANC out in that article in terms of the party that’s the most politically intolerant.

DAVID BRUCE: The focus of this project that we’re involved in is on the position of poorer voters firstly. And so it’s interested generally in the issues that they face.

But in relation to…its primary focus is on questions to do with political intimidation. And so, in theory all parties in South Africa are in some ways opposition parties because the ANC…the ANC is the dominant party, but there are areas where it is not the dominant party.

And so…and there are areas where ANC members themselves, as far as I am aware, do face intimidation from other parties, particularly in Kwa-Zulu Natal. So, the general concern of the project is with this question of political freedom and so insofar as people who wish to support or vote for the ANC are deprived of the chance of doing so or feel intimidated as a result of supporting the ANC, you know, the concern of the project is as much with their right to freely exercise their vote, as with the right of any other voter.

But the truth of the matter is that the ANC is the dominant party in South Africa. Also, that the ANC is not a foreigner to the practice of intimidation. The ANC - in the 1980s and 1990s - the ANC you know, what people refer to as the armed struggle, was a bitter struggle involving violence and the use of intimidation by people on both sides.

You know, one shouldn’t be surprised if…to find that the ANC as a party continues to be linked to intimidation.

And so in some ways what the project is interested to explore is, to what extent is intimidation or other types of coercive practices still a feature of the experience of voters, particularly poorer voters in South Africa.

The one thing is just that we do have a problem of political killings in South Africa.

So, and up to this point it hasn’t really been associated with the electoral politics, its been associated with…well, no it has been associated with electoral politics in Kwa-Zulu Natal. So, some of the political killings that have taken place there, have, you know, taken place in the build up to elections and have been understood as related to electoral contestation.

But many of the political killings are also understood to take place…are understood as intraparty political killings. So there are rivals within political parties killing each other and the evidence that we have is that in certain circumstances people will go to the extreme of killing each other in order to be able to position themselves - best position themselves - in order to be able to have access to political power in poorer communities.

FAZILA FAROUK: I’d like to move to the issue of, you know, what’s happening to voters on the ground in terms of intimidation that voters might experience in the run up to the election. What’s happened to date, given the fact that there are a whole range of new political players on the ground? I mean how is that affecting the way voters engage with the process and their freedom and ability to engage with the process?

DAVID BRUCE: Right. Okay. Well you see again it’s an issue, which really hasn’t been explored.

I think is some ways there has been this assumption, potentially, what I understand as partly a kind of, a type of projection of the experience of middle class people that intimidation isn’t really any longer an issue.

What has also been a bit of an issue quite recently for instance in relation to the election in Tlokwe is this issue of vote buying. As far as I understand the allegations are that the ANC through the Department of Social Development has been involved in distributing food parcels in the Tlokwe area and that that is specifically - the allegation is that - that is specifically intended as a means of guaranteeing or trying to ensure that they are able to retain their position of dominance there.

FAZILA FAROUK: I’ve also heard that in Tlokwe somebody wearing a DA T-shirt had their T-shirt ripped off them, you know….

DAVID BRUCE: And there are reports of that kind of thing in other areas as well.

FAZILA FAROUK: Final question on this issue: Are South African voters in poor communities free to choose who they want to vote for?

DAVID BRUCE: I don’t think that they are entirely free to choose who they want to vote for. It’s not quite clear.

I think there are many poor communities where there is a high level of freedom, but there are many others where the established system is one where a dominant party governs in that area and where people are afraid to openly express support for other parties.

And incidents like - the incidents that you were talking about at Tlokwe - where a person who is wearing a t-shirt of an opposition party has the T-shirt ripped off, you know, has his T-shirt ripped off, is the kind of, you know, one kind of political practice that reinforces the message that people may face adverse consequences if they, particularly, if they openly support parties other than the parties that are dominant in the area in which they live.

FAZILA FAROUK: David Bruce thank you very much for joining us at SACSIS.

DAVID BRUCE: Great. It’s a pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.

FAZILA FAROUK: And thank you to our listeners and viewers for joining us at the South African Civil Society Information Service. Remember if you want more social justice news and analysis you can get that at our website at sacsis.org.za.

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