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25 Apr, 2009 01:09

Did Election Day Test South Africa’s Claim of Democracy?

The quality of South Africa’s democracy has been a hot topic lately. If Wednesday’s election process was to be the determining factor, the verdict is in.

The nation lived up to its promise of a free and fair election. From providing Braille templates for blind voters, to allowing the injured and elderly to advance to the front of the line, South Africa displayed high democratic character.

It was expected that voter turnout would be the highest ever. Voters did not disappoint

All over the country, lines of people from every race, age group, and lifestyle flowed into buildings and tents to make their choices count. Blacks waited along with whites. Housemaids waited along with housewives. Even a man with two broken arms appeared at a Guateng voting station, determined to cast a vote.

Voters emerged from the booths with purple dye on their thumbs, and most had a jolly expression on their faces. The purple dye was a precautionary measure to prevent double voting. The jolly expression was reported as satisfaction.

One man came from the voting booth all smiles. His response to every question was “no problems, man. Everything is good.”

Another couple said the process “was as efficient and professional as it gets.”

“A carnival mood is prevailing across the country led by the first citizen, President Kgalema Motlanthe, who cast his ballot at 7am in Pretoria,” which is the time polls were set to open, said Adv Pansy Tlukula, Chief Electoral Officer of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

According to the IEC, 98% of the polling stations opened on time. “Those that did not… were primarily temporary stations which were affected by challenges such the weather,” said Tlukula.

Problems Arise

But opening polling stations on time was not the only challenge presented to the IEC.

Ballot boxes can only hold so many votes. As the first boxes reached their capacity, a shortage of replacements sent election officials scrambling. It was decided that the ballot boxes that special votes had been cast in earlier should be used.

“But we cannot put today’s votes on top of votes that were supposedly cast another day,” an election agent argued at a Centurion polling station.

This dispute was finally resolved after the IEC and party members agreed that witnesses from each party would oversee the transfer of the special votes, which would be consolidated and sealed in other boxes.

Some stations reportedly solved their shortages by using plain cardboard boxes.

Hours later, ballot papers began to run out. The IEC noted that 55 million had been printed. But more than 28 million people were registered to vote. As the election was provincial and national, two ballots per person were required.

The shortage of voting materials was not so much about the number of people who voted, but “was caused mainly by the provision in the Electoral Act that allows voters to vote at voting stations other than the ones where they are registered,” said IEC Chairperson, Brigalia Bam.

Ballot papers had to be redistributed to the stations that needed them most, which took time, and stalled voting in some places.

That the number of people who would exercise their freedom to vote where they like was underestimated slowed down the process in one more way.

“When they [voters] vote at any station other than where they are registered, they must fill out a form,” said a presiding election officer, revealing the one page document.

Polls were set to close at 9pm. But at many voting stations, the lines still stretched outdoors, despite the fact that temperatures had dropped.

The IEC announced that voting stations would not be held open late. Election staff capped the lines, so that newcomers could not join, but everyone who was present before the deadline was allowed to make their marks.

That the African National Congress (ANC) will win the national election is a given. However, many voted to prevent the ANC from getting a two-thirds majority, which would afford them power to change the Constitution.

As the votes are counted, the question in many minds is whether a democratic election will lead to fair governance.

Michelle Smith for RT