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Not with a bang, but a whimper: Almost free and almost fair on the south-western tip of Africa

As we stood in the rain, queueing to vote in the deep south of Cape Town, the fidgeting got more and more pronounced. It was clear that the IEC officials were not only late, but also very inexperienced. That’s neither free nor fair.

Opinionista • Paul Hoffman • 8 May 2019 Daily Maverick

Planning for casting your vote timeously is a tricky business in the new SA. My local polling station is at the King of Kings Baptist Church in Noordhoek, the yellow brick building that graces the intersection at the bottom of Ou Kaapse Weg and lies on the route of the Two Oceans foot races, as well as the Cape Town Cycle Tour: Familiar with marathon events then. My plan was to arrive shortly before the opening of the polling station at 7am and be through the process within half-an-hour or so. The sub-plan to take the dogs along with us was scrapped at 6.30am when gentle rain started to fall. Can’t have the ridgebacks catch cold was the reasoning of she who must be obeyed. They stayed in their beds without stirring, it was still dark. So we took the car and managed to find the last parking space in the church parking lot, directly adjacent to the end of the queue, which at 6.45am consisted of fewer than 50 hardy souls, most standing stoically in the drizzle under umbrellas of various kinds and sizes.

I went up to the front of the queue and asked a damp man how long he had been queueing. He thought I was trying to queue jump but eventually confessed that he had been there for all of 15 minutes as he wanted to get to work on time by getting to vote early. Fair enough. Taking up our places at the back of the queue behind two semi-retired estate agents, we were soon joined by two young Navy ratings and around 7am more aspirant voters joined the line, now snaking around the parking lot. The shared hardship of standing in the rain to exercise our right to vote provoked a lot of bonhomie and wise-cracks; the virtuous feeling of being there, among the first to arrive, kept the mood of the queue buoyant at least until 7.10am, when we all started to notice that there was no movement at the front end of the queue and very little sign of life within the church hall.

At 7.15am a flurry of activity marked the arrival of the IEC personnel with their equipment and the setting-up process then commenced. No explanation for the tardiness, no apology, no nothing from anyone called or labelled “IEC”.

Around 7.25am Alderman Felicity Purchase of the DA spoke to the damp and chilly voters in the queue. The IEC staff had been delayed. We could see that. No reasons given. They were setting up, “It should take half an hour” – so there was time enough to collect a takeaway coffee while trying to keep warm swopping stories and developing the esprit de corps of those in the queue prepared to sit (or stand) it out. Some left immediately, presumably to go to work, and possibly never to return, others drifted away as their estimates of the time that they were able to devote to exercising their democratic right to vote expired on the pyre of inefficient, tardy and diligence-free delivery by the IEC.

Some grumpy old men were heard to bark at the Alderman, giving vent to their fury at the delay, the unexplained delay. They calmed down when it was explained that despite the officious demeanour of the Alderman, she was not part of the late IEC team and was not likely ever to be so.

The queue steadily grew longer, attrition being outweighed by the addition of new arrivals at its tail end, now in the road and stretching beyond the boundaries of the church premises. Almost like the 1994 snaking queues.

The grumbles in the queue increased, but fortunately the rain abated, much to the relief of those waiting so patiently for delivery of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote. As the day grew lighter and warmer towards the expiry of the half hour needed for set up, the mood in the queue held steady. A jiving, twerking IEC helper setting out the tape to divide the parking lot (why no one could tell) also served to improve the humour of the grumblers.

However, when 45 minutes had elapsed and there was still no movement the grumpy old men gave voice to their displeasure. I phoned the local radio station. Yes, they had several reports of late openings. After 8am I got to speak to Keino Kammies on air: He would report the matter to Courtney Sampson; yes, the station would remain open late if it opened late (cold comfort to the bedraggled voters in the queue) and no, an explanation for the tardiness had not been furnished.

The Alderman reappeared, having earlier driven off, her credibility now in tatters. What of the half hour to set up? Well, it’s like this: The personnel are so ill-trained that it is taking much longer than usual to set up. Eventually, patience began to wear thin and tantrums were thrown by the usual suspects. A burly warrant officer of the SAPS had to ask one to “keep it down” – obviously sensitive enough not to use the incendiary verb “calm”.

I asked the warrant officer to obtain an explanation for the 90-minute delay in opening the voting station, suggesting that the IEC owed an accounting for the delay to the people who had been standing in the rain in anticipation of the business of the day starting at 7am, as advertised and as required by law.

“We haven’t even been introduced to them, but you are right, I will get someone to come out and speak to the people” replied the warrant. Eventually, after 8.30am the sick, lame, elderly and child-accompanied were allowed in, and soon after the real queue started to move. One joker emerging from the process assured us that the pace of work within the hall would have us all waiting all day. Actually, not so, the scanning of identity documents, issuing of ballot papers, marking of thumbs and posting of duly-completed ballot papers in ballot boxes was mercifully quick. As we left, the queue was moving well and was still stretching up to the road beyond the church.

Those who had, due to other commitments, to leave the queue before it started to move cannot be said to have had the opportunity of participating in a free and fair election. It is patently unfair to announce the opening of polling stations at 7am and then to actually open them at a time so much later that only those enjoying a public holiday (which is not everyone) can spend the time patiently standing in a queue that does not move at all. It is the constitutional obligation of the IEC to ensure free and fair elections. Hopefully, Courtney Sampson will come up with accounting for the tardiness in opening the King of Kings polling station. An apology will also not go amiss. Conspiracy theories and dark mutterings suggest manipulation a la Robert Mugabe, who was known to close MDC-friendly urban polling stations early so as to deny his political opponents the opportunity of voting against him. This is not the stuff of which a fair election is made.

Hopefully, the Alderman will check to ensure that the King of Kings polling station stays open until at least 10.30 this evening. Building a culture of democratic participation is not achieved by keeping voters waiting. Active citizenship is thwarted by the failure to open on time, the independence of the IEC is called into question when the tardiness is restricted to known opposition party strongholds while other polling stations in differently-aligned areas open promptly. The manner in which the ANC-led alliance raises funds from SOEs, arms deals, Bosasa kickbacks and the PIC (excluding Iqbal Surve’s allegedly tainted R1-million) makes it impossible to have a fair election in SA; this has been the case since 1999 when the kickbacks from the arms deals paid for the ANC election campaign. The IEC should independently investigate the sources of funding of all political parties with a view to ensuring the fairness of elections. The fact that it won’t bears mute testimony to how far we have strayed from the constitutional standard of free and fair elections. DM

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