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The launch last week of Election Watch, a nonpartisan campaign to protect the integrity of the coming general election, was a welcome development. Given global democratic backsliding, and a moment of potential political transition in SA, a broad mobilisation of civil society that includes business, labour, faith-based organisations and foundations, could help maintain SA’s post-1994 tradition of broadly free and fair elections. 

Our electoral commission (IEC) is somewhat protected. Commissioners are appointed through a three-stage process that includes the chief justice, commissions for human rights and gender equality, the public protector, the National Assembly and the president. This means it cannot be undermined quickly and directly.

Concern about voter misdirection on the day — for example by members of the SA Democratic Teachers Union — are sadly plausible and will no doubt be a focus for Election Watch oversight. Civil society may yet be able to inform voters that new registration requirements are likely to disenfranchise many of them on election day.  

Meanwhile, donors who want to deter big-picture count manipulation will hopefully once again fund a 2024 post-election survey, and so continue our invaluable tradition of internationally acclaimed “SA national election surveys”. 

There are five further broad areas of concern, in which it is difficult for the IEC and civil society campaigns such as Election Watch to counter electoral manipulation. 

The first of these is money. SA’s party funding legislation was a botched job. International studies show that money plays a huge role in elections but in ways we — and funding regulators — simply cannot track. And the evidence we do have also suggests those who spend the most money still tend to win. 

The second challenge is technological. The IEC and the Association of African Electoral Authorities have made a valiant effort to solve yesterday’s problems by drawing up “guidelines” for technology and social media. They disapprove of bot armies and hacking into vote-counting systems, which is all laudable, but it is not clear how such activities can be reliably stopped if sophisticated international actors involve themselves in our elections. Moreover, a new generation of generative artificial intelligence has made it easy for creative party apparatchiks to branch out into fabricated pictures and videos.  

Third, incumbent politicians often lie like crazy to survive, but now they have better advice and capacity. An enormous tissue of interconnected lies about the energy transition, for example, has been disseminated widely and consistently in recent years, with identical — and inaccurate — coal lobby talking points emerging from politicians’ mouths, in traditional media reports, on social media and even in phone-in radio programmes. 

Fourth, there is increasingly blatant abuse of state resources for party gain. Some of this is no longer surprising: bakkies for traditional leaders, unemployment insurance funds to create fake jobs, and government programmes bedecked in party colours. More serious, but harder to identify, are abuses of intelligence agencies, regulatory agencies, powers of state procurement and perhaps some of our courts. 

Finally, democracy’s defenders have to contend with SA’s bewildering world of political ideas. The ANC has always been a bit confused about democracy because its key strategic documents disparage bourgeois or liberal democracy and elevate the ostensibly scientific understanding of the party over the false consciousness of the masses.

Our international partners in China and Russia, where no government has ever lost an election, tend to concur with this approach. Younger ANC intellectuals have added their own twist, sceptical of the merits of “Western democracy” and seeing little reason to defend the integrity of its discredited elections. 

As for the broader citizen body, surveys from Afrobarometer and others suggest many people believe things couldn’t be any worse if SA was an autocracy. This is an understandable — but major — error of popular judgment. 

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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