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Public protests cast a shadow over SA voter registration
5 April 2016

The first registration weekend for South Africa’s 2016 local government elections, which took place in March, saw a number of disruptions due to protest action.

On 9 and 10 April, South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) will host the final voter registration weekend before the elections are eventually held. The election date is yet to be announced; but in the run-up, it is important to find out what these disruptions and protests mean for the polls.

The first voter registration weekend in early March saw an impressive turnout. The IEC reported that over three million South Africans visited voting stations.

According to the IEC, this is more than double the number of voters who registered during the first registration weekend for the 2011 municipal elections; and a 23% increase over the first registration weekend in 2014 national and provincial elections.

Of this number, 22% of these were new registrations, 35.1% were re-registrations in different voting districts and 42.5% were confirming or updating their details in the same voting district. More information is available on the IEC website.

A vast majority (78.6%) of the new registrations (544 552 people) were from young voters under the age of 30 years. This indicates a very positive response from young South Africans to the IEC’s call to register. Young people are traditionally regarded as the least likely to vote, as evidenced by the IECs registered voter demographics.

Disruptions of voting stations and procedures is an emerging trend
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By the end of March 2016, a total of 25 535 726 voters were registered. More than half (55%) were female; and 23% (5 872 423) are under 30. Only 52% of young South Africans between 20 and 29 years of age are registered to vote (5 484 215 out of 10 534 500); a low figure compared to 87% of those over the age of 30.

Yet only 48% of voters between 20 and 29 years of age voted in the last municipal elections (compared to 58% of registered voters overall). If the 2011 trend persists, only one in four eligible young people between the ages of 20 and 29 will participate in the upcoming elections.

Nonetheless, young people are displaying high and rising levels of activism, as highlighted by the turnout of young people during the #FeesMustFall campaign and other community protests. The reasons for increased activism include deteriorating socio-economic conditions; increased dissatisfaction with government services; growing mistrust in the ability and willingness of government to deliver on their promises; and a larger profile from opposition parties in communities and on campuses.

This increased level of activism could also account for the upswing in youth voter registration, and may translate into a greater overall voter turnout. Nevertheless, some voters may choose not to exercise their right to vote, while others may feel that protest action is the only avenue for change, given that it is a protected right under the South African Constitution.

Many among South Africa’s electorate believe that ‘voting helps and protest works’
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In the 2014 national elections, two out of three eligible voters (registered and unregistered) either did not vote, or voted for an opposition party. One out of three voted for the African National Congress (ANC).

The main concern ahead of the 2016 elections is that aggrieved individuals and groups could undermine the process as a way to express their grievances. This development was first observed during the 2014 national elections, when at least six voting stations were destroyed and IEC staff were threatened and attacked in Alexandra and Tzaneen.

The number of related incidents recorded during the first registration weekend indicates that this tendency is on the rise. IEC incident reports showed disruptions at 91 voting stations. Most of the incidents involved threats and intimidation against IEC staff or community protests. Around 40 voting stations experienced severe disruptions, forcing the voting stations to open late, close early, or not open at all.

The IEC incident reports list disruptions in eight provinces. Their only exception was the Free State, although the Institute for Security Studies’ public violence monitor recorded one incident in Maluti-a-Phofung based on media reports. Nearly one in three incidents recorded by in the IEC occurred in Limpopo province, while a quarter took place in the Eastern Cape, followed KwaZulu-Natal and North West. 

Disruptions by province

Source: ISS analysis based on IEC incident report

The most widespread disruptions occurred in Malamulele and Makhado (particularly the area of Vuwani) in Limpopo; affecting 26 voting stations. The complex issues at play here relate to the decision to move certain areas that currently fall under Thulamela into a newly demarcated municipality. The new, yet unnamed, municipality was called for by other groups through extensive protest action – as they felt that the Thulamela municipality does not deliver services effectively to their areas. The area has experienced widespread protests and disruptions from opposing groups in the past year.

The IEC and the police need to invest in the better coordination of election security
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This comes despite attempts to intervene on the part of government from a range of political leaders, including the Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and King Toni Mphephu Ramabulana.

In neighbouring Mpumalanga, News24 reported that two Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party agents were hospitalised following a mob attack. Community protests disrupted two or more voting stations areas such as Pampierstad (Northern Cape), eThekwini and Jozini (KwaZulu-Natal), Khayelitsha (Western Cape), Ntabankulu and Nelson Mandela Bay Metro (Eastern Cape) and GaMothibi in the North West.

Although only 91 out of the 22 569 voting stations experienced disruptions during the first registration weekend, it represents an emerging trend. This confirms research published in 2007, which suggests that many among South Africa’s electorate believe that ‘voting helps and protest works’. Protests are a way to express dissatisfaction with an elected party without having to vote differently; or vote at all.

The disruptions may have been even more widespread had it not been for several government initiatives aimed at decreasing protest action during 2015, most notably in Gauteng. One such initiative, launched by the Gauteng Premier, David Makhura, is the Ntirhisano community outreach programme, which aimed to respond quickly to service-delivery grievances in Gauteng. The Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs has also established rapid-response teams to deal with grievances in municipalities.

It remains to be seen whether the final voter registration push during this coming weekend will experience the same level of disruption. Ultimately, better information is needed. Incidents must be tracked and analysed in detail and over time; which is one aim of the Institute for Security Studies’ public violence monitor.

The IEC and the police need to invest in the better coordination of election security and should strengthen their dispute- and conflict-resolution capacity. In addition to enhanced voter registration training, democracy-building initiatives and government responsiveness and accountability need to be improved if disruptions are to be prevented in future.

Lizette Lancaster, Manager: Crime and Justice Information Hub, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

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