South African voters are expected to be reluctant to come out in their numbers, leaving political parties scrambling to woo enough support in the upcoming local government election, which comes with unprecedented challenges for even the biggest parties.
Experts and parties alike fear that contestants may have trouble reaching a reasonable critical mass for their campaigns to be optimally effective come November.
Last week, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) reopened candidate lists and voter registration for the 2021 elections, following a Constitutional Court (ConCourt) decision to dismiss the commission’s application to have the elections postponed to 2022.
Free and fair campaigning?
As lockdown restrictions have restricted opportunities for physical gatherings, parties have turned to alternative methods of campaigning such as holding smaller gatherings, controlled door-to-door campaigns and increasing social media engagement, in addition to traditional media platforms.
However, there are some medical scientists who are concerned about this. It’s not surprising because when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that only seven million people in a country of roughly 59 million were fully vaccinated, that is only around 10% of the population and it’s not close enough to ensure herd immunity.
While some parties such as the Democratic Alliance (DA) and ActionSA have run high-engagement social media campaigns this election season, spending thousands of rands on sponsored content on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, smaller parties have struggled to effectively make the virtual switch.
Narnia Bohler-Muller, a divisional executive at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), says some political parties, such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), may be struggling to campaign successfully in some constituency areas where the voter base is poorer, has less access to the internet and is used to the traditional methods of election and voter registration drives.
She says it can even be argued that the election may be regarded as not free and fair after all if people don’t turn out in enough numbers come the day of election.
Trade union Cosatu recently said despite welcoming the easing of lockdown restrictions, it found the rate at which people were failing to get vaccinated to be deeply worrying.
At the same time, the economy cannot afford to continue absorbing periodic lockdowns, nor is there enough in the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) to provide relief to workers.
In a joint submission to the Inquiry into Ensuring Free and Fair Local Government Elections, the Health Justice Initiative (HJI) and the People’s Health Movement, South Africa (PHM-SA) said if the country was unable to hold safe a election, it cannot be considered to be free and fair.
The inquiry was set up to investigate the possibility of free and fair local government elections this year considering the Covid-19 situation in the country. This has recently played out in other parts of the world, including India.
But the DA has pointed out that recent elections held in African countries over the last year have shown that it is possible to hold free and fair polls during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Parties have had to change the way they do things
Congress of the People (Cope) spokesperson Dennis Bloem says this has been a tough election year so far for the party.
Not only has Covid-19 disrupted the party’s operations since the start of the pandemic, but tragedy has also struck the party at leadership level.
“We must say this election campaign is very tough. Our general secretary Papi Kganare is a victim of Covid-19, we were campaigning in Eldorado park in a by-election, two months ago, and he passed on because of the door-to-door campaign. Physical interaction is really a big change. But we are saying the elections must proceed.”
Meanwhile, ActionSA says in addition to media engagements, it has focused its campaign on root-level activism in communities to boost its chances of raking in votes.
Though Covid-19 has been challenging for the party as a new organisation, its activities have included engaging with government on behalf of communities to give them a sense of “real change”.
“ActionSA has been vocal about its support of the elections taking place this year. The rot and corruption that has escalated to epic proportions even in the face of the covid 19 pandemic, cannot be left to continue any further,” said party spokesperson Busisiwe Radebe.
“The people of South Africa deserve the opportunity to head to the polls and elect ethical leaders who will ensure that the rule of law is upheld and that the guilty are crucified. ActionSA in all 6 municipalities that it is contesting is offering the people of South Africa an opportunity to elect tried and tested leaders.”
DA shadow minster for cooperative governance, Cilliers Brink, argues as the party has in court that this election can be free and fair despite the risks posed by Covid-19.
“We believe it is possible for SA to have free and fair elections while adhering to basic health protocols. Other African democracies have already shown that it can be done, and that it’s a far safer bet than to tamper with the constitution’s election timetable,” said Brink.
To prevent your events from being super spreaders you have to organise on a smaller scale. This includes house meetings and street meetings instead of large rallies. Door-to-door campaigning need not involve more than 500 people (the current restriction on outdoor events), because the focus in each instance on an individual voter.
Bohler-Muller has warned that voter turnout has a high probability of mirroring the current slow pace of vaccination, which has been linked to fears around Covid-19 vaccines.
This is corresponds with recent research by the HSRC and the University of Johannesburg (UJ), which found that two-thirds of respondents in a survey were agreeable to the election being postponed to next year. This could indicate that people want to vote, but they are afraid of the risks while the country is struggling to vaccinate enough people.