Democracy comes of age

2009-04-22 00:00

SOUTH African voters have been calm and tolerant, going out to vote in their numbers in a spirit of celebration and excitement, according to election monitoring bodies.

The KZN provincial electoral officer, Mawethu Mosery, said yesterday the elections were running “fairly smoothly”.

“There are hiccups as usual,” he said. “They have been occurring all over the province — administrative hiccups as well as other things like polling stations opening late, things missing, but we are happy with progress so far.”

But where those hiccups occurred or where there were long queues, people displayed tolerance and patience, said Election Monitoring Network’s (EMN) national co-ordinator, Derrick Marco.

“They treated the occasion with a sense of enjoyment and as a day off rather than with any aggression or agitation.” The EMN is made up of independent civil society organisations, including the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) and the Black Sash.

Confirming the impression of other monitoring groups, Marco said the elections so far had been marked by peace and calm with no major incidents of violence or intolerance that could point to a trend.

Most complaints were about bureaucracy and were speedily dealt with, he said.

Violence monitor Mary de Haas said it was a quiet day, although she received reports of some incidents, including intimidation at Sweetwaters and an incident at Macambini, where IFP members were alleged to have been toyi-toying in the polling station.

De Haas also had reports of an incident at Ehlabeni polling station near Creighton where an IFP supporter was alleged to have assaulted people and caused damage to property. The police confirmed the incident and said a man riding a horse allegedly assaulted voters outside the polling station and damaged a car. According to police spokeswoman Director Phindile Radebe, a man was arrested and will be charged with assault and malicious damage to property.

De Haas said levels of violence in the run-up to yesterday’s election were not to be compared with what happened in 1994 when thousands died. “It’s probably been similar to 1999 and 2004 in the run-up,” she said.

“Some people were killed, but it’s not clear how many of these killings were politically linked,” she said. “Even if a party official or leaders were killed, you could not be sure of political overtones.”

De Haas said a strong security presence had also been an influence in ensuring the smooth running of the elections. “What seems to be making a difference in areas that have been historically problematic is the presence of outside security people.”

She said the testing time comes on election day once it gets dark. “Do election officials feel safe? Do the police remain? What happens to the ballot boxes when the polling station closes? After the voting has taken place then people are frightened of the possible repercussions,” said De Haas. “Especially when the results come out.”

A spokesman for the KZN-based African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (Accord), Sean Callaghan, said “no news was good news” and that although there were no guarantees of peace holding into the night, there was nothing reported in the recent past to suggest that the process would be anything but peaceful.

“It’s testimony to the process,” he said. “People have gone out in the spirit of ‘This is a good thing and there’s no reason to get hot under the collar about things’.”

Marco attributed the lack of incidents to a number of factors, including political maturity among citizens, sufficient vigilance on the part of monitors, restraint on the part of political parties and the media. He noted that in this election, no party was claiming all the “political space”, which was evident in the absence of no-go areas.

Our Greytown correspondent reported a big turnout from early in the day, but it was remarkably quiet, especially as Greytown has been identified as a hotspot. The large police presence in the town was credited with having kept the atmosphere peaceful during voting.

However, it is expected that tensions will build in the area from today with the possibility of the ANC winning the town from the IFP.

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