Pretoria – For the past three days, much of the country’s attention has been focused on the Electoral Commission of South Africa’s cavernous national results operations centre in Pretoria West, where the giant leaderboards have shown the national and provincial election results as they have come trickling in.
The centre has witnessed the culmination of all the election campaigns: the excitement and disappointment, the feverish buzz of excitement, mostly jovial and cordial exchanges, and largely, the extreme exhaustion of all of those involved in South Africa’s fourth democratic election.
The upper levels of the centre housed the makeshift offices for the various media outlets, including the large studios for broadcasters eNCA, SABC and ANN7, as well as info desks, a seemingly poorly attended exhibition on 20 years of democracy, a Telkom stand, and most importantly for all those attending – the dining hall, where the IEC serves free buffet meals to those who were registered. There were fresh tulips on the tables and an assortment of pot plants in the black-draped hall, leading to questions about whether IEC Pansy Tlakula had anything to do with them, as she allegedly did in the IEC’s headquarters.
But it was on the main floor, under the giant screens, where all the action seemed to be at. The central section was cordoned off with red rope for the IEC results staff and auditors. They slaved away quietly the entire time, seemingly ignoring the frequent disruptions around them. On their left were the tables of the political parties, where there was a steady hive of activity, with politicians coming and going as they monitored their results.
By far the most colourful table was that of the Economic Freedom Fighters, with their red shirts and trademark red berets commanding attention. Party leader Julius Malema wasn’t seen there during the week, but stalwarts Floyd Shivambu and Dali Mpofu were regular features at the desk, greeting and chatting to many who passed, including many ANC friends.
The ANC’s desks were further to the corner, and were manned by a steady flow of ANC stalwarts, from Cabinet ministers to party officials. Even Winnie Madikizela-Mandela visited and spent a few hours in the company of ANC officials, discussing the results. Nearby, the DA’s desk hosted party leader Helen Zille on a number of occasions during the results process, with DA staff checking the results on their computer screens against those of the large screens above.
All the other parties were there at their desks monitoring the results, with smaller parties assigned smaller desks. There were frequent stirs as party leaders passed their rivals, but mostly a genial atmosphere. In fact, when ANC leader Jacob Zuma visited the results centre on Thursday night, he stopped and spoke to a number of political parties, congratulating them on their results. One almost felt bad for these smaller parties when all the attention was focused on their bigger or more media-friendly rivals, but most that News24 spoke to maintained that they were glad to be there and be part of the process, and that the general atmosphere on the floor was a good one. A few took the opportunity to criticise the media for focusing on personalities and the size of a party instead of its values and manifesto, but clearly the voters had spoken too.
On the other side of the hall, a spattering of observers were there to make sure that everything was in order. An observer told News24 that most of their real work was at polling stations and during the counting process, but it was good to be at the results centre to see everything come together.
The other feature of the results centre was the jostling of journalists as they swarmed around assembled politicians, trying to get the best shot or ask a question. There was almost a stampede when Zuma visited, and his security guards and a flustered Jackson Mthembu had to plead for order. Interestingly the initial crowds that gathered around party leaders and other high-ranking officials at the start of the counting process seemed to fizzle out as they became a familiar fixture in the hall, and when the journalists realised there wasn’t too much more they could ask them. However, when eNCA puppet Chester Missing was interviewing a politician, there was a mad scrum as not only journalists but staff and onlookers tried to get a glimpse of the interview. Another fun moment was when Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota took up his challenge to eat his hat, nibbling it and then hosting an impromptu media conference.
Working at the results centre soon settled into a routine of checking the results, searching for interviews, then time to write or edit them, battling to get a good internet connection and having to recharge batteries, both equipment and physical. Fairly regular IEC briefings were an opportunity to ask questions and get the latest information, but much information seemed to be spread through word of mouth.
As the results process heads into its final stretch, the hall is being dismantled and all eyes are on the final announcement at 18:00 on Saturday, as well as the celebrations that will follow. A dinner will be held afterwards, which will no doubt give all those who have been working long hours during the election process the chance to kick back and enjoy themselves a little. Before they go home and sleep.