21 April 2009

South Africa: Food Used as Election Weapon, Say Monitors

Cape Town — South African civil society election monitors are expecting largely violence-free polls in the country’s national elections, but say party activists have been using access to food and social grants as a political weapon.

The Election Monitoring Network – formed by leading non-governmental agencies and religious organizations – says in its final pre-election report that the run-up to Wednesday’s election – “the most competitive election in South Africa’s history” – has seen “much lower levels of political violence and intolerance than might have been expected.”

However, the monitors are worried that the announcement of results could trigger conflict in KwaZulu-Natal and have called for security measures which were implemented to ensure peace at the polls should remain in place after voting day.

KwaZulu-Natal is the home province of Jacob Zuma, the new leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Zuma is the first national ANC leader to come from the region since Chief Albert Luthuli, the 1960 Nobel Peace laureate, and his ascendancy to the party leadership has been followed by a surge of new support for the ANC, according to opinion polls. In the past, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party has posed a strong challenge to the ANC, especially in rural areas of the province.

The monitoring network says that despite the relatively low incidence of violence, monitors have reported incidents of political intolerance in most of the country’s provinces, including the disruption of opponents’ meetings, the defacing or removal of election posters and the denial of meeting venues to parties.

It adds that party activists have used resources and their connections to government to deny voters, particularly the poor, their right to choose freely: “We continue to receive reports that food parcels are used to persuade the poor to vote for those who provide them and that voters are told that they will only receive the social grants and public services to which they are entitled if they vote for particular parties.

“We have also encountered claims that municipal officials have been demoted and forced to perform menial jobs because they support a particular party. In some provinces, it is alleged that traditional leaders are trying to ensure that they decide for their subjects how they should vote.

Such abuses are not as visible as election violence, say the monitors, but “the illegitimate use of power to deny the poor and weak a free vote is just as much a threat to the health of our democracy.”

Read the Election Monitoring Network’s full report

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