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Policing the South African Elections


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With only a few days to go before the South African general elections, political parties are going all out to win voter support. The campaign trails of the last few months have not been without casualties, with an election monitoring group listing 40 incidents linked to the April 22 elections - mostly at the level of intimidation or clashes (Mail & Guardian, 01 April 2009). While many analysts predict a violence-free election, the recent formation of COPE , the breakaway party of the ANC, has added a new and unexpected dimension to the 2009 elections. Old rivalries between the ANC and IFP are also still very much alive - evident from recent clashes during the campaign trail.

While sporadic politically related incidents have flared up in provinces such as Gauteng and the Western Cape, the worst hit has been Nongoma in northern KwaZulu-Natal. According to news reports, IFP supporters attacked ANC supporters at an ANC rally. Among the casualties were an ANC MP from the Zulu Royal family and his daughter-in-law who were shot and wounded after leaving the rally. Six ANC supporters were also wounded after being stoned by IFP supporters and an ANC chairperson of the Nongoma region was shot and wounded by an alleged IFP councillor.


The Nongoma incidents and other similar occurences reported throughout the country have raised concern about the potential threat of violence on the days preceding the election and on voting day as well. Special prosecution units have been established by the Ministry of Justice to deal with election related cases and the National Editors' Forum (Sanef) has set-up an alert system for journalists under threat during the elections.

The policing of the elections have also been given high priority and extra-precautionary measures are being taken at polling stations and key conflict zones. Part of the police readiness includes mobilising Public Order Police (POP) in all the provinces, but more especially in KwaZulu-Natal as a result of the Nongoma incidents and the history of political violence between the IFP and the ANC. Due to the reduced capacity of the POP members as a result of the SAPS restructuring process (POP members total 650 in Kwazulu-Natal - an alarmingly low capacity should violence flare up in the province) and the overlapping of the IPL cricket tournament with the elections, Visible Police (VISPOL) members from police stations and other specialised units will also be on alert. The National Intervention Unit, the SAPS' specialist task team deployed solely for high to medium risk operations, in addition to POP platoons from Limpopo, North West and Gauteng have already been deployed to assist police in KwaZulu-Natal.


The police have also made plans for potential violence after the elections if the ANC does not win a 2/3-majority in Parliament. The period between Election Day and the final announcement of elections results is however wide enough that party supporters would already have dissipated and the potential for violence will be significantly reduced. If some violence does occur, this will be minimal and localised.

General interest in elections has also declined because of the dampening of people's expectations since the 1994 elections and the maturation of democratic institutions and practices, with the result that the turnout rate at polling stations may be low and the potential for violence will thus be further minimised.

Despite the expectation of a peaceful and incident-free election day, it is sensible of the SAPS to err on the side of caution and to prepare for any eventuality.

Bilkis Omar, Researcher, Crime, Justice and Politics Programme, ISS Tshwane (Pretoria)



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