South Africa: Conflict prevention and management

Extracted from: Susan Booysen & Grant Masterson 2009 "Chapter 11: South Africa" IN Denis Kadima and Susan Booysen (eds) Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa 1989-2009: 20 Years of Multiparty Democracy, EISA, Johannesburg, 416-420.

According to IEC statistics, South African elections have become increasingly peaceful. To illustrate, Election 2004 was the least conflictual of the three elections from 1994 to 2004. In its preliminary post-2009 election statements the IEC suggested that the trend of increasingly peaceful elections was continued into Election 2009. In the national and provincial elections of 1994 the IEC received 3,594 official complaints, and more than 1,000 people were killed in election-related violence. In the 1999 national and provincial elections the number of official complaints was 1,114 and the number of people killed less than 100. In 2004 the IEC received just 253 complaints and claimed no election-related deaths (see Table 4). These numbers indicate that election-related conflict had declined progressively and substantially. Interim assessments of the 2009 elections referred to the fact that, despite initial fears that elections would be characterised by violence, the three main weeks of campaigning and polling proved to be overwhelmingly peaceful.

Table 4: Trends in complaints and killings in Elections1

Item 1994 1999 2004
Party-political complaints to the IEC 3,594 1,1142 253
Number of persons killed 1,000+ >100 0

Table notes

  1. Sources: Booysen, 2009 based on Piper, 2004
  2. Of these, 359 (80% of these related to violence and intimidation; KwaZulu-Natal was the province with the most instances, followed by the Eastern Cape).

In the early Election 2009 campaign period, there was evidence of intolerance, hate speech, obstruction and intimidation. Yet, the mood calmed significantly and these incidences did not translate into significant objections to the election process and results. The 2009 party objections, for example, frequently related to perceptions that shortages of voting materials in some voting stations had deprived voters of their right to vote. At the time of writing the IEC was still to release official 2009 conflict data. Though the incidence of electoral violence was not as high as in preceding elections, there were incidents of political intolerance and conflict in KwaZulu-Natal between the ANC and the IFP, and between the ANC and Cope, and ANC and the DA in other parts of the country. Incidences of political intolerance and pre-election conflicts ran counter to the letter and spirit of the code of conduct that parties contesting the elections signed at national and provincial level. The conflict management systems of preceding elections were continued in the period of 2008 and 2009.

The success of conflict management systems

The decline of conflict in elections 1999 through 2004, and also in the final 2009 campaign weeks, corresponds with the rise of conflict management programmes. Based on the experiences of the 1994 elections and the 1995-6 local government elections it was believed that alternative dispute resolution and conflict management processes such as mediation, arbitration and conciliation were potentially a more accessible, cost-effective and rapid means by which to address disputes. More specifically, the 1999 conflict management programme was developed in response to two main needs not addressed during the 1994 national and 1995-6 local government elections. These were early warning mechanisms to alert electoral authorities to potential election-related conflict, and sufficient organisational capacity to facilitate the effective resolution of disputes, including the design of effective dispute resolution systems and people skilled in the resolution of election-related disputes.

The conflict management and conflict resolution project of 1999 included the electoral code of conduct to be signed by all parties and stakeholders; the Electoral Court, established in terms of the Electoral Commission Act of 1996; the development of election monitoring and conflict management capacity; and frameworks for election security. Overseeing these four objectives were new structures in the form of conflict management committees and mediation panels in all nine provinces. These were initiated by the legal services department of the IEC and intended to institutionalise legal powers of adjudication of disputes in partnership with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that enjoyed both the confidence of the community and had familiarity with local conditions.

Formally, the conflict management programme was run at provincial level with conflict management committees headed by the provincial electoral officer (PEO) and including relevant NGOs, the security forces (the South African Police Services and the South African National Defence Force), a representative from each of the mediation panels established in the province and resource persons as deployed by the PEO. In practice it was not the PEO's office which ran the committee, but rather the political party liaison departments - a decision reflecting the central role of parties to election conflict. The conflict management committees continually monitored levels of conflict, oversaw all conflict mediation, decided on the levels and nature of interventions, tracked the adherence of parties to decisions, and oversaw all conflict-related training of staff.

Based on its 'EISA model', which involves grassroots actors in the prevention and management of election-related conflicts, formal training was done through EISA, which acted as an implementing agent for the IEC, facilitating the establishment of the provincial conflict management committees, the recruitment and training of staff and the administrative and logistical infrastructure required to implement the project in the nine provinces.

In the 1999 election most of the complaints made to the IEC came via the national call centre, although this did not prevent parties and individuals from approaching the provincial conflict management committees directly. Established on the eve of the election, this call centre was staffed by 17 people and was open 24 hours a day. In addition in the election period, complaints were received at the IEC head office in Pretoria and at the IEC nerve centre.

Final conflict management committees' report of 2004

Item KwaZulu-Natal Northern Cape Western Cape Eastern Cape Limpopo Gauteng Mpumalanga North West Free State
Logged calls 444 137 61 144 15 259 20 15 19
Complaints Total 37 6 11 17 1 51 3 8 5
Referred for Mediation 35 0 9 17 1 1 2 6 5
Referred for Facilitation 2 6 2 0 0 50 1 2 0
Referred elsewhere/resolved by telephone 407 131 50 127 14 208 17 7 14

Table Source

Compiled from IEC website, (accessed 10 May 2004), range of windows consulted

Conflict management in 2004 and beyond

The conflict management programme of 2004 (and beyond) was conceptualised as a 'continuation and consolidation' of the 1999 and 2000 conflict management programmes, and thus was similar in intent, design and effect. As in 1999 the programme included an electoral code of conduct, the Electoral Court, party liaison committees and conflict panels. One significant change from the previous elections was a 2003 amendment to the Electoral Act No. 73 of 1998, with the insertion of section 103A which read:

The Commission may attempt to resolve through conciliation any electoral dispute or complaint about an infringement of the Code brought to its notice by anyone involved in a dispute or complaint.

This gave formal legal recognition to the non-conflictual and pre-emptive way of dealing with illegitimate politics that the IEC had developed in 1999 and 2000. In addition it helped limit the field of issues on which the IEC should seek conciliation to infringements of the code of conduct, rather than every administrative issue. In terms of structures, the 2004 programme more closely resembled 1999 than 2000, establishing conflict panels within the IEC in each province rather than at local level. However, unlike 1999, these conflict panels were managed by provincial coordinators who were responsible for overseeing the recruitment and deployment of panels, although the PEOs were responsible for identifying conflict panellists. Furthermore, the provincial coordinators reported to both EISA and the IEC, as EISA was responsible for administering the programme. Part of the reason for this was to increase the non-partisan nature of the conflict management programme as the IEC was often a party to disputes. In 2004, in fact, 19 complaints of IEC bias were made by parties.

Provincial coordinators were drawn from the ranks of provincial full-time or contract staff, unlike the 2000 programme, where short-term contractors were appointed. They were required to publicise the establishment of the conflict panels, arrange and attend training, administer the programme, submit reports and invoices, capture information into the database, generate reports and deploy panellists. The fact that coordinators had responsibilities over and above conflict management placed a significant burden on these individuals, and both EISA and the independent evaluator recommended that 'consideration be given to a dedicated person' in future.

The best indication of the success of the conflict management programme was the fact that just 253 complaints were recorded in the 2004 election. This was 22.7 per cent of the 1999 figure and just seven per cent of the 1994 level. Of these 253 complaints, 31 required direct intervention from panellists, with 24 relating to inter-party disputes and seven to disputes with the IEC. KwaZulu-Natal contributed the largest number of complaints of any province at 185 (73 per cent), followed by Mpumalanga with 25. Importantly, only 34 of the 253 complaints involved harassment, with violence or intimidation at a mere 13 per cent. The vast bulk of the complaints concerned posters (31), faulty station procedures (21) and alleged IEC bias (19). Election 2004 had only three serious incidences of conflict. One was conflict between rival rallies of the IFP and ANC in the same area in KwaZulu-Natal, and the other was when then ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma was refused access to the George Goch and Jeppe hostels in Gauteng.

The provision by the IEC of conflict management training for electoral staff and conflict mediators in 2009, coupled with the presence of the high numbers of security forces, contributed to the peaceful conduct of the election. Extra security forces were deployed in KwaZulu-Natal, where conflict had been looming since the pre-election period.