Hurdles on the way to the polling booth

Alex | Oct 02, 2009
Patrick Laurence wonders why government is insisting that voters in next year’s election must possess a bar-coded ID book.

Dispute over the organisation of next year’s election — the first since the installation of an African National Congress-led government of national unity in 1994 — provides a backdrop to preliminary political manoeuvres by the main contestants. The discord over the modus operandi for the election is of more than academic interest: disagreement on how the election should be conducted is calculated to accentuate the grievances of defeated parties at the eventual outcome and thereby add unnecessary acrimony to the political process as South Africa enters the next millennium. The lesson of Lesotho provides an awful warning of what can happen when the legitimacy of an election is disputed.

There is a more serious reason for disquiet, however. The controversy has generated sufficient heat from within ANC ranks for one of its parliamentary representatives to criticise the chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), Johann Kriegler. The censure, which presumably reflects the mood in the ANC parliamentary caucus, is the political equivalent of players criticising the person nominated as the referee or umpire in advance of a pending sporting contest. Siyabonga Cwele, speaking during a debate on the Electoral Act of 1998, has accused Kriegler of “exceeding his bounds” by expressing views on which documents should be used to identify voters at registration centres and, later, at polling booths.

At the heart of the dispute is an ANC decision, taken by its national leadership in mid-August, that the only valid document for purposes of compiling a comprehensive voters’ register and for identification of voters on election day should be the green identity book containing a bar-code issued under the Identification Act of 1986. The decision was taken against Kriegler’s counsel.
Originally the IEC had concurred with the ANC. It believed designating bar-coded ID books as the only acceptable document for the election would ensure that fraud was reduced to a minimum and that many of the administrative problems — and resultant quarrels — associated with the watershed 1994 election would be avoided. One reason for that choice was that the bar code contains details of the individual concerned, including his or her fingerprints, which, with a swipe through an electronic machine, can be cross-checked against a duplicate set of details recorded on the Population Register.

Identity books issued before 1986 do not offer that safeguard. There are a plethora of them. They include the blue “book of life,” the identity document issued by the erstwhile “independent states” of Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei (the TBVC states) and even the “reference book” or “dompas” which black people were obliged to carry at all times and to produce on demand or face arrest and prosecution.

Of these documents those issued by the TBVC states are the most unreliable. Inept and corrupt administrations in these polities resulted in thousands of fraudulent documents being issued, many to foreign black people who entered South Africa illegally. But, despite its original preference for making the green bar-coded ID the only “legal tender” for the election, the IEC later changed its mind, recommending instead that all existing identity documents — including those issued before the introduction of bar-coded IDs in 1986 — be declared valid for the election. The IEC’s switch was not prompted by a retraction of its belief that its initial approach was the best one theoretically. It was made because, on closer examination, the IEC was convinced that too many potential voters do not have the required bar-coded identity documents and that the department of home affairs could not ensure that they would get them by election day.

Though election day had not been designated when Focus went to press, the law stipulates that it must be held within 90 days of April 30 next year. The time constraint was a factor in the IEC’s decision. It calculated that, even if the department’s assurances were accepted at face value, there still might not be enough time for the department of home affairs to get bar-coded IDs to those without them.

Another critical factor in the IEC’s decision was an investigation which it commissioned the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) to conduct into the distribution of the various identity documents throughout South Africa’s population. The salient findings are contained in an HSRC executive summary of its investigation. Three of those central points are as follows:
n One in ten (10.6 per cent) of potentially eligible voters do not have any form of ID. In absolute numbers that represents between 2.5 million and 2.8 million people. Of these people, about three-quarters are first time voters between 17 and 21 years of age.
n Of the remaining potential voters in possession of valid South African IDs, nearly 85 per cent have the green bar-coded ID. The other 15 per cent possess a miscellany of IDs, ranging from the blue book of life (5 per cent) to the old dompas (1 per cent).
n Overall between 5.3 million and 5.9 million people do not have green bar-coded IDs, of whom about quarter stated they had applied for the requisite bar-coded ID. Nearly 65 per cent of those who had applied had been waiting for 12 weeks or longer, a finding that threw considerable doubt on assurances from the department of home affairs that it could meet the demands of the situation.

The HSRC, whose report was completed at the end of July, came to an unequivocal conclusion — however desirable theoretically, the magnitude of the problem made it impractical to designate the bar-coded ID as the only valid document for the election. Its recommendation was equally decisive. “Accept the older IDs as a valid form of identification and direct resources towards ensuring that those individuals who do not have any form of ID obtain their IDs in time for the 1999 election.”

Faced with that information Kriegler, with the full backing of the IEC, sought to persuade the relevant parliamentary portfolio committee, which was debating the Electoral Bill, to change tack. At first he was successful, convincing even ANC members of the committee that provision should be made for the use of all valid South African IDs in the law regulating the election. But then the ANC decided at a meeting of its national executive committee that only the green bar-coded ID should be accepted. The party whip was cracked; ANC members on the parliamentary committee fell into line.

Kriegler did his best to persuade the ANC to alter its stance, warning that a logistical disaster was in the offing. But the ANC refused to heed his counsel. In so doing it was bolstered by assurances from the department of home affairs that it had the technical and human resources, and the determination, to supply the prerequisite number of documents. These assurances emanated mainly from deputy minister Lindiwe Sisulu and director-general of home affairs Albert Mokoena. The minister of home affairs, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who is not a member of the ANC, was less vocal though, Focus understands, no less confident about the department’s ability to respond to the challenge.

The assurances from Sisulu and Mokoena rested on two pillars: confidence in the department’s ability to process up to 25 000 documents a day and the belief that the actual number of potential voters without bar-coded IDs is far less than the HSRC calculates, 2.5 million against well in excess of 5 million. Those who have stood in in the long, slow queues for passports at departmental offices may be more sceptical than the ANC about the assurances. That aside, there are two more reasons for scepticism.

First, the IEC’s doubts about the viability of using only bar-coded IDs were initially aroused when the department began to question its original calculation — on which the IEC based its initial decision — that only 4 per cent of the estimated electorate did not have bar-coded IDs. If those calculations were askew, why should its present computations be any more reliable?
Second, the department’s present estimate that only 2.5 million potential voters do not have bar-codes is based on the 1996 census, the preliminary findings of which were released last year. But these findings, which put the population at 39.9 million, or nearly 5 million less than projections based on the 1991 census, have met with considerable scepticism. Many observers, including Robert Shell of Rhodes University, believe they underestimate the total population. As Shell remarks, post-apartheid demographers are under tremendous pressure to debunk their apartheid-era predecessors and their Malthusian vision of an exponentially growing black population. If suspicions that the 1996 census undercounts the population are correct, the department’s confidence may be misplaced and IEC officials may have to face large numbers of disgruntled South Africans waving evidence that they have applied for, but not received, bar-coded IDs, and insisting on their right to vote.

Even allowing for political point-scoring the experiences of Pan Africanist Congress MP Patricia de Lille and Democratic Party leader Tony Leon during visits to the department of home affairs regional office in Cape Town do not boost confidence in the department. De Lille found that 32 850 bar-coded ID books were lying in the office, waiting to be sent to applicants, a situation described as “unfortunate” by PAC leader Stanley Magoba. He noted that “failure to dispatch these documents could mean that the applicants will not be able to participate in the elections next year.” Leon gave an unflattering account of the office: he stood in a queue for 35 minutes, during which time there were never less than 30 people in line while three officials processed their applications. “I was advised that it will take two months at least for me to receive a new ID book with a bar-code,” he recalled. Referring to a R5 fee which he was required to pay, he said: “What it amounts to is a qualified franchise. People died for the right to vote but now you have to pay for the privilege.”

On that note it is pertinent to emphasise that the right of every citizen to vote is enshrined in the constitution under clause 19 which guarantees their political rights generally. If they arrive at the polling booths, armed with documentary proof that they are citizens — and most of the old, pre bar-coded documents are accepted as evidence of that — what will the IEC do? Turn them away, at the risk of provoking violent protest? Make ad hoc arrangements, with the attendant danger of administrative confusion and inefficiency? These are not just abstract questions that face the IEC. Kriegler himself posed them in an address to the National Council of Provinces. “What happens to people who have applied for and don’t have their IDs on voting day? I took an oath on assuming office that I will allow people that have the right to vote to do so. What happens when millions of people can’t vote?”

The constitutionally enshrined right of citizens to vote means that a legal challenge will almost certainly ensue if voters apply for bar-coded IDs but do not receive them in time. The main opposition parties, the Democratic and National Parties, will probably take joint action to ensure that the issue is not lost by default if substantial numbers of South Africans cannot vote because of arithmetical miscalculation or administrative inefficiency by bureaucrats.

Anticipating the possibility of an application to the courts by an aggrieved voter, Kriegler says: “Should the bill (prescribing that only bar-coded IDs are acceptable) be challenged, it will mean that election preparations will be held up while the case spends months in court. That has very serious legal, administrative and political implications for the whole country.” Since Kriegler’s address, the ANC has used its majority in Parliament to push through an electoral law requiring voters to be in possession of a bar-coded ID to register and, more critically, to be able to vote. But it has also taken two steps to try to avoid these disastrous predictions.

The first step has been to make provision for applicants for bar-coded IDs to be issued with a temporary registration certificate, which they will be able to use to register as a voters when compilation of an up-to-date voters’ roll begins in November. But on election day they will not be allowed to vote unless they can present a bar-coded ID book to electoral officials. The certificate will thus reduce logistically problems relating to the registration of voters but it will not relieve the department of the logistical challenge of ensuring that all applicants received their bar-coded IDs before election day.

The second step is the decision to allocate R36.5 million to fund a campaign to impress upon voters that they will have to be in possession of the bar-coded ID book to vote. The need for the campaign is highlighted by the HSRC survey which found that almost 60 per cent of South Africans are unaware that they need a bar-coded ID to vote. The risk for home affairs is that the campaign may precipitate an avalanche of applications with which it cannot cope. Conjecture about the possible logistical disaster ahead refocuses attention on a fundamental question: why did the ANC national leadership persist with its decision after it was warned by Kriegler, who had been entrusted with the mammoth task of overseeing the election, that the risks were too high?

The statement issued by the ANC after its national executive committee made the decision does not offer a convincing explanation. In a short paragraph, it emphasised the ANC’s belief that all “eligible South Africans” should obtain bar-coded IDs; its commitment to campaign vigorously to that end; and its view that applicants for the IDs should be allowed to register as voters with temporary registration certificates, which would be provided upon application for the bar-coded ID. A later statement by the ANC’s department of information and publicity added nothing to this statement, except exhortations to the department of home affairs and the IEC to “pull out all the stops to ensure that all voters have access to the requisite IDs.”

Opposition circles suspect that the government’s decision is based on a calculation that the ANC rather than its opponents will be the prime beneficiaries, that beneath all the talk about attempting to exclude fraudulent voters from the polling booth lies cynical self-interest.

The National Party’s Coetzee Bester believes that the ANC, in its bid to retain the Northern Cape and to wrest the Western Cape from the NP, has calculated that the move will effectively disenfranchise older, mainly white voters, who still hold the blue “book of life.” Another interpretation is that the real target is the disaffected young people in the Eastern Cape, many of whom are believed to be deserting the ANC for Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement.

Detailed scrutiny of the HSRC survey shows that there are relatively high percentages of potential voters without bar-coded IDs in Umtata in the Eastern Cape and Cape Town-Nyanga in the Western Cape, though not in Northern Cape towns. The percentages are, in round figures, 10 per cent for Umtata and 8 per cent for Cape Town-Nyanga. Equivalent figures for the Northern Cape towns of Upington and Kimberly are under 1 per cent.

If one assumes from the HSRC figures that the NP and the UDM will be the main losers in Western and Eastern Cape — and there is no hard evidence of that — the theory of an ANC conspiracy to disenfranchise opposition voters might have a modicum of credibility. But, as the ANC’s Thabo Masebe points out, the HSRC survey shows that most of those without any IDs are young first-time voters, and a large proportion of the ANC’s supporters are drawn from precisely that section of the black community. For the ANC wilfully to seek to disenfranchise young voters would thus be a self-wounding action, inexplicable in terms of rational self-interest, he argues.

A senior ANC MP who declined to be identified, makes another telling point. Opposition supporters tend to be concentrated in urban areas and in the white, coloured and Indian communities, whereas ANC support is concentrated in the still largley disadvantaged black community, a large proportion of which lives in the rural hinterland. Opposition parties, he argues, will have an easier task persuading their better educated, higher income and more accessible urban voters to apply for bar-coded IDs than the ANC will have in reaching and persuading its rural voters.

According to this MP, the ANC decision was not unanimous. The move to base the election on bar-coded IDs was strongly resisted by the party’s election team precisely because they feared it would be disadvantageous to them. Nevertheless ANC leaders in government persisted, in part because government departments are increasingly basing delivery of social services on possession of the bar-coded ID in order to eliminate fraudulent claimants, such as ghost pensioners and the like.

On the basis of the HSRC survey it is not possible to conclude that there is an ANC conspiracy to disenfranchise opposition voters. As Focus was going to press, however, a survey conducted by sociologist Lawrence Schlemmer for MarkData indicated that the ANC might be the prime beneficiary of the decision to restrict voting to citizens with bar-coded IDs. Schlemmer’s findings — which he was still refining — show that nearly twice as many opposition supporters have “inappropriate documentation” as their ANC counterparts, 18-20 per cent against roughly 10 per cent. He attributes the skewed distribution to age: opposition supporters contain a larger proportion of older people with pre bar-coded documents. But Schlemmer adds: “It is quite conceivable that there is no male fides in the ANC decision. I would not assume there there is an ANC hidden agenda. I don’t think they knew about the MarkData survey. It will be a pleasant surprise for them.”