How many people will be able to vote?

The prospects of a smoothly-run election will not be good if large numbers of potential voters find that they are excluded.

Two years ago Dr Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, then co-chairman
of the local government election task group, warned that plans for the country’s 1999 national election were running a year behind schedule and would probably be held without a proper voters’ roll. “We came through the last elections on euphoria, but we are not going to manage this a second time round,” he said. “In the founding election in 1994, the world was interested in who was elected and in this election they will want to know how a government is elected.” (Sunday Independent, February 23, 1997).

His words were prescient. With planning begun too late and without adequate financial support; with crucial disagreements hanging over registration numbers and ownership of different ID documents and with opposition party legal challenges threatening lengthy court cases, the organisation and legitimacy of this year’s election is on the line. It should be held within 90 days of April 28 and the President’s office has indicated that the date will fall between May 18 and May 27.

The acrimony unleashed by the high-profile resignation of Independent Electoral Commission chairman Judge Johann Kriegler on January 26 suggests that the magnitude of the crisis may at last be dawning. The government appears rattled. The intemperate reply by Deputy President Thabo Mbeki to Kriegler’s resignation letter was followed by a gratuitous personal attack by constitutional affairs minister Mohammed Valli Moosa. The normally rational and courteous Moosa accused the judge of not having questioned the old apartheid order but having the temerity to question the post-apartheid government. “The man’s hypocrisy leaves a bitter taste in my mouth,” he said. This was so unmerited it actually brought George Bizos, a senior member of the legal fraternity and a man known for his strongly pro-ANC views, to Kriegler’s defence. Moosa played the race card too: whites had not applied for bar-coded IDs, he said because they “don’t want to be part of the new South Africa” — though he did not make the same deductions about blacks who had not applied.

Acting in apparent tandem with Moosa, Essop Pahad, minister without portfolio in Mbeki’s office, advanced the specious argument that whites had had ten years to apply for bar-coded IDs. He conveniently failed to mention that IDs without bar-codes are legally acceptable and that the decision to base the elections on bar-coded IDs was made as late as August last year.
Until recently the debate about the forthcoming election centred on what might seem to some an arcane dispute over the possession of these bar-coded IDs without which it will be impossible to vote. This is the issue that has prompted both the New National Party and the Democratic Party separately to challenge the the Electoral Act in the High Court. However, particularly since the second round of registration at the end of January, the spotlight is also turning on registration figures and the numbers without any ID documents at all.

It was that latter issue that triggered a baleful vision in Kriegler’s mind last July. He had just read the Human Sciences Reasearch Council report of a survey commissioned by the IEC to establish how many potentially eligible voters were in possession of bar-coded identity documents and, as important, how many did not have them. It showed that one in ten of South Africans of voting age did not have any form of ID, a ratio that translated to between 2.5 and 2.8 million voters, depending on the exact size of the electorate — estimated to be 25 million people. The vast majority of those without any form of ID were black first-time voters aged 17 to 21 living in rural areas. In his mind, Kriegler foresaw “The ominous spectre of tens of thousands of black youths arriving at voting stations on election day and demanding to exercise their democratic rights but having to be turned away.” Depriving them of the vote — for that is what turning them away amounts to — has “grave implications for the safety, security and integrity” of the pending election. It is not difficult to complete the scene: polling stations under attack, police intervention, shots, bloodshed, death and the inevitable world reaction.

The HSRC survey also found that between 2.8 and 3.1 million voters had identity books of various kinds but without bar-codes. “Taken together the results suggest that between 5.3 and 5.9 million people do not have a green bar-coded ID,” the research council concluded. Faced with these figures, the IEC decided to reverse its original decision that the compilation of a voters’ roll and organisation of the election should be based on possession of a bar-coded ID. As Kriegler explained in his affidavit to the High Court considering the NNP challenge, “Prudence dictated abandonment of the bar-coded identity document requirement.”
Although he persuaded the relevant parliamentary portfolio committee to recognise all IDs as valid for the election, so that the department of home affairs could concentrate on issuing bar-coded IDs to those without any form of identity document, he failed to convince the ANC leadership.

At its national executive meeting on August 14 and 15, the ANC reaffirmed the decision to make bar-coded IDs the only acceptable document for voting purposes. (A temporary registration certificate, indicating that the holder had applied for a bar-coded ID, was later recognised as an acceptable document for registration as a voter.)

Both the DP and the NNP suspect that the ANC took that decision because, having had sight of the HSRC figures, it calculated that it would benefit politically. The survey showed that about 10 per cent of the population did not have green bar-coded IDs, the vast majority of whom were in possession of IDs issued by the South African government before 1986, the date at which IDs (with bar-codes) were first issued to blacks. For historical reasons — mainly the attempt to deny blacks citizenship — those with some form of ID but without bar-coded IDs were drawn almost exclusively from the white, coloured and Indian minority communities.

A senior ANC MP who is close to Mbeki denies that the decision emanated from the organisation’s election strategists. He states that it came mainly from health minister Nkosazana Zuma and welfare minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, who wanted to use bar-coded IDs for computerised payment of social service grants, a procedure which would go a long way to eliminate payments to fraudulent claimants.

Later surveys have confirmed the HSRC’s finding. Opinion ’99 — in which the ANC-leaning SABC participated — showed that a higher proportion of blacks (82 per cent) had bar-coded IDs than Indians (72 per cent), Coloureds (67 per cent) and whites (65 per cent). As a party whose constituency is overwhelmingly black, the ANC would benefit if possession of the bar-coded ID were required for voting. When broken down by party support Opinion ’99 figures show that to be the case: 82 per cent of ANC supporters had bar-coded IDs compared with 71 per cent for the NP and 65 per cent for the DP. Similar figures emerged from a survey conducted by MarkData.

But if the vast majority of people without any form of ID are young blacks the ANC could hardly benefit by making bar-codes compulsory for voting. Three independent surveys have produced very similar figures, so why should the ANC ignore them? The answer seems to lie with the department of home affairs and in particular its director-general Albert Mokoena. He flatly rejects the HSRC finding that as many as 2.8 million mainly young blacks do not have any form of ID. Mokoena believes that a “substantial number” of young people between 17 and 21 have to be in possession of IDs because they need them for registering as matric candidates, applying for bursaries, entering tertiary education institutions and fulfilling miscellaneous socioeconomic needs such as opening bank accounts. Kriegler counters: “The people in question are predominantly rural, uneducated and seriously disadvantaged youngsters to whom the opening of a bank account, applying for tertiary education or even securing formal employment are not even remote possibilities.”

If Mokoena is correct in assuming that young blacks have IDs because they require them for a miscellany of socioeconomic reasons, then those IDs will be bar-coded ones since these are the only IDs issued by home affairs at present. If the ANC accepts Mokoena’s argument it would not be shooting itself in the foot by insisting on bar-coded IDs. But there is no evidence to prove or disprove that self-interest and realpolitik prompted the ANC decision. In that evidential vacuum suspicion thrives in opposition minds. Mbeki labels it — and similar scepticism about the ANC’s commitment to the principles of multiparty democracy — “self-induced prejudice”.

Two incidents challenge, if not contradict Mokoena’s confidence. During the second IEC registration drive on January 29, 30 and 31, Brigalia Bam, who served as Kriegler’s deputy, witnessed would-be voters being turned away from registration points in the Eastern Cape because they did not have the requisite documents. Then on February 6, the deputy president addressed a crowd at Lusikisiki in the same province. According to the Sunday Times when Mbeki mentioned problems with getting new IDs, his audience shouted “azikho” which means “they are not there”.

Mokoena is equally adamant that his department can meet the shortfall in bar-coded IDs, even if, hypothetically, it is as high as five million. In fact he thinks the figure is much lower. He says in his affidavit to the High Court considering the NNP case: “From the records of the department, there are approximately 1.6 million people who do not have the green bar-coded IDs.” and cites the Population Register as his source. To this Kriegler ripostes: “I do not understand how the National Population Register which ex hypothesi contains the details of those who are registered can indicate how many people are not registered.”

Mokoena is convinced that the problem is a manageable one. But Kriegler states that it takes the department two months to process an application for a bar-coded ID, and he remains sceptical: “The two month estimate refers not to the delivery to aspirant voters of new identity documents but to the production capacity of the department of home affairs. The communication difficulties and postal problems that beset the country suggest that the production capacity and actual rate of delivery will differ widely.”

The HSRC national survey contains a sobering result: 35 per cent of those who applied for a new ID waited for more than 12 weeks before receiving them, while 20 per cent waited for more than 20 weeks. Tom Lodge, professor of politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, talks about the “obduracy” of the department of home affairs in insisting that it is right. In the Johannesburg local office alone 500 000 new IDs are waiting to be collected and he wonders to what extent that situation is replicated at offices throughout South Africa.

The performance of the IEC so far in registering voters does not inspire confidence. The first round late last year (which was divided at the last minute into two phases) and the second at the end of January were marred by too many reports of registration points which did not open, were understaffed or staffed by undertrained people, or impeded by faulty zip-zip machines meant to speed up the process of registration.

After the second round IEC chief electoral officer Mandla Mchunu confidently predicted that 8 million voters would be added to the 9 million plus registered last year. But the latest IEC figures show that a total of only 14.1 million voters — just over 52 per cent of the eligible electorate have registered. More significantly, Focus has seen a preliminary analysis of the total that suggests that some parties may be doing much better than others in getting their supporters out to register. In ANC and DP strongholds registration seems to be running at a rate of 55-56 per cent, slightly above the national average. However, in what were white NP strongholds, the rate appears to be only 35 per cent and in Asian and Coloured areas only 25-30 per cent.

With another registration drive scheduled in March, and local IEC offices open for registration during the whole of this month, the final figure may be quite impressive — on paper. Many observers, including this writer, cannot help feeling uneasy in spite of all this optimism The high figures they quote do not tally with video pictures depicting a mere handful of people queuing to register and registration points that have failed to open.

There is another critical point. A successful election will depend on only a small number of potential voters being excluded as well as a large number being included on the voters’ roll. If large numbers are excluded through no fault of their own, the prospects of a smoothly run election will not be good. Faced with uncertainty about the figures, the spectre that haunted Kriegler cannot be dismissed as the paranoia of an “ageing Afrikaner”. As he wisely remarked prudence dictates an inclusive approach on IDs, a point which the opposition parties are pressing for in their court applications.

President Mandela has, Focus understands on good authority, approached the DP and NNP and mooted the idea of round table talks between their leaders, home affairs minister Chief Buthelezi and Deputy President Mbeki. However his initiative has run into heavy opposition from within the ANC. Only if he can revive it can the credibility and legitimacy of the election be saved.