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The Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) has a reputation for holding scrupulously free and fair elections, a rarity on a continent notorious for its rigged votes. But is that reputation justified? Having seen and reported on the past three elections (2009, 2014 and 2019) we are beginning to wonder.

To be fair, the IEC as a whole worked hard to ensure the polls reflected the views of the people. But the devil was in the detail. It is true that SA has not been subjected to the gross ballot stuffing seen in other countries’ elections, but there is little doubt that the governing ANC has consistently been at a distinct advantage.

There were the giant government adverts lining the highways — in ANC colours, mimicking ANC messages but paid for by the public. There were the school halls hired by the opposition that were suddenly no longer available for political meetings. There were the state-funded food parcels, blankets and T-shirts distributed at ANC political rallies.

All of these were underlined by reports of threats and intimidation against representatives of parties, from the EFF to the DA, particularly in rural areas. And the accompanying lies: vote for the opposition and they will reintroduce apartheid and take away the pension and other payments your family survive on.

On election day there were the massed ranks of ANC supporters, dressed in ANC colours, toyi-toying and chanting party messages inches away from the long lines of voters patiently waiting to cast their ballots. This had been specifically outlawed by the IEC, yet officials were reluctant to call the police when asked to by the opposition. Hardly surprising when many of the officials were school teachers and members of the SA Democratic Teachers Union, an affiliate of ANC alliance members Cosatu.

SA also has a recent history of political killings that raises concern. For the most part these were contained in the ANC: internecine murders in aid of seizing political position and the resources that come with them. And so far they have tended to be localised, in regions such as KwaZulu-Natal.

But as David Bruce argued in a 2013 article for the Institute for Security Studies, “As long as political killings continue, even if largely localised to specific provinces, the establishment of democracy in SA will continue to be partial in nature. Not only do they impact on individuals and their families, friends and political associates ... they also contribute to establishing a climate of fear within political life that extends its reach to many parts, particularly within poorer constituencies. As long as political killings can take place in one province without any substantial risk of consequences for those behind the killings, they represent a threat to those involved in political life throughout SA.”

Some in the governing party have elevated the July 2021 riots to the status of an insurrection — as if the ANC were an alien power that should be overthrown.

Political killings constitute the ultimate form of political intimidation, and as competition for position spills out of the ANC towards rival political parties this tendency for violence could easily move wholesale to having a more external focus.

The July 2021 unrest in KwaZulu-Natal should also give us pause for thought. The expert panel on the riots stated in its report to the president, “The period between 8 and 17 July 2021 saw parts of the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng explode in violence never before seen in democratic SA. At the end of the orgy of destruction and looting over 354 people were dead.” This is five times the death toll of the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, though the comparison is never made.

This is the clearest example yet of ANC internal competition spilling into the streets. Yet some in the governing party have elevated the July 2021 riots to the status of an “insurrection” — as if the ANC were an alien power that should be overthrown, and not the government running the country.

All of these factors will play into the 2024 election. And as the threat to the ANC’s hold on power increases so will the party’s desperation to hang on. This is personal as well as political: the wealth and livelihoods of many of the entitled elite hang in the balance.

The ANC has in the past achieved percentages of the vote that are the envy of political parties in other countries that employ systems of proportional representation (PR). In 2019 it won 56% of the national vote, down on previous elections but still a mouth-watering figure in a system that uses PR. As such the ANC has been able to dominate the national government for decades without the need for coalitions.

The 2024 election lies in the future, but if the opinion polls are correct this dominance could be about to end. The election will be held against a background of decline in everything from infrastructure to employment. The public is likely to hold the ANC to account for the failures. The result could be the most closely contested national election in the modern era. Along with the national challenge, major provinces such as Gauteng look increasingly likely to fall to opposition coalitions.

Of course, none of this is a given. Predicting the future in social and political matters is notoriously difficult. Social and political science is not physics. But the omens of a shift are there, and the IEC needs to be aware of, and prepare for, the potential scale of the task it faces in 2024.

The ANC’s hegemonic hold over society is at stake. It is a reality few in wider society, including the media, have yet grasped. Many are trapped in past certainties — what the Centre for the Study of Democracy’s Steven Friedman has termed “prisoners of the past”.

Post-2024 it is likely that ANC public representatives and officials will no longer exercise easy access to the levers of power across nearly every sector of society. It would be foolish to think they will not resist when they see power slipping from their control.

If this occurs, the IEC will face its first genuine contestation for national power since 1994. Will it be able to oversee a free and fair process where power is taken away from a political party that is so used to dominating SA politics and society?

This remains an open question. What is certain is that the stakes in 2024 for SA could not be higher.

• Dr Jubber is an associate lecturer in the philosophy of science at University College London. Plaut is a senior fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

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