Fear and violence in the run-up to the April 1994 election that brought the ANC to power

Anthea Jeffery | Jun 06, 2019
International monitors of the 1994 poll should have queried whether a free and fair election could truly be held in such an atmosphere of fear.

Many South Africans who lived through the April 1994 election have forgotten the atmosphere that prevailed in the run-up to the poll. Many others are too young to have experienced it. But if we are to understand how the ANC came to power – and how it has used its power since then – it is important to remember the intimidation and violence that prevailed in a pre-election period when the ANC could not yet rely on the state patronage that has helped secure its electoral dominance since then. 

International monitors of the 1994 poll should have queried whether a free and fair election could truly be held in such an atmosphere of fear. Instead, most simply went along with ‘the charade that all is well’, as one British newspaper pointed out. So writes Anthea Jeffery in this extract from the new edition of her book, People’s War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa

From early in 1994, as the April election drew closer, the NP complained that ‘intimidation of its supporters was being orchestrated … by the ANC throughout South Africa’. 

The NP found itself barred from operating openly in various townships in the western Cape and KwaZulu/Natal. In the Transkei, its election campaign was hindered by General Bantu Holomisa, a strong ANC ally. In the Transvaal and Orange Free State, its supporters faced threats and attacks. In Parys (Orange Free State), one NP member was killed and other NP supporters were driven from their homes.

The NP’s director of publications and research, Jacko Maree, listed more than 200 incidents in which ANC supporters had intimidated or assaulted NP members. ‘The ANC’s unabated campaign of intimidation’ put free and fair elections at risk, he said. At an NP rally in Postmasburg (northern Cape), De Klerk himself was hit by a stone. For this attack on the state president, the IEC fined the ANC R10 000. For the most part, however, threats to free political activity emanating from the ANC seemed to go unchecked. 

In mid-April, a fortnight before the start of election, intimidation had become so rife that the NP questioned whether a free and fair election was possible at all. ‘The NP will not …say an election cannot take place, but we are moving on the borderline and serious attention should be given to this,’ said NP executive director Olaus van Zyl.

In Mamelodi (Pretoria), a township resident standing as an NP candidate in the elections was intimidated and harassed by street committee members. Her car tyres were slashed, she was threatened with death, and she was forced to stop all campaign activities. In Tembisa on the east Rand, another member of the NP was forced to withdraw her candidature when veiled threats were made against the lives of her children. In Kagiso (on the west Rand), the chair of a local ANC branch threatened to kill the NP organiser in the area.

The Democratic Party (DP) was intimidated too... By March 1994 the DP’s postering team was refusing to enter Soweto because the party’s posters were repeatedly torn down and their lives were threatened. The home of a DP member and organiser in Meadowlands was fire-bombed. When DP posters were placed in the window of a spaza shop in the area, the owner was warned by youths that he would be killed and his business burnt down.

By the middle of March, the NP had abandoned all attempts to canvass in black townships in the eastern Cape. It was simply too dangerous to attempt this, the party said, because township residents who did not support the ANC were being portrayed as ‘traitors’. 

In addition, the ANC had taken over township anti-crime programmes, along with food relief and building initiatives, and was using these to dispense patronage and enforce its political hegemony. Black policemen in many eastern Cape townships were now so frightened of attacks by the revolutionary alliance that they had openly aligned themselves with the ANC. 

The DP was also forced to abandon its endeavours to campaign in eastern Cape townships. Neither the DP nor the NP was able to hold high-profile political meetings in this region. Nor could they do so in the crucial PWV area, where millions of potential voters lived.

The IFP remained under significant physical attack until a week before the poll, when it agreed to enter the election. By then, it had been so stigmatised that it had little prospect of engaging in normal campaigning in many parts of the Reef and KwaZulu/Natal where its support had previously been strong. 

According to researchers Graeme Gotz and Mark Shaw, years of brutal violence and the ANC’s successful propaganda campaign had rendered ‘the IFP hostel dweller the eternal “other”, the equivalent of the Jew in Nazi Germany, and the perceived source of all conflict’. Many township residents on the Reef were now terrified of being labelled as Inkatha supporters, for they knew they could be burnt to death if such predilections were even suspected...

Omnibus opinion polls conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in the months before the poll showed that 46 per cent of black people had no confidence that their vote would remain secret, that 49 per cent saw themselves as living in ‘one-party’ areas, that 43 per cent were ‘cautious’ about voicing political opinions differing from those prevailing locally, and that 20 per cent felt pressurised ‘to vote for a party they did not particularly support’.

Such concerns were evident not only in war-torn KwaZulu/Natal and the PWV but also in the eastern Cape, the northern Cape and the northern Transvaal. In all, as political analysts RW Johnson and Lawrence Schlemmer were later to write in their book Launching Democracy in South Africa, ‘international observers would have found it difficult to discover another electorate which was so generally fearful as South Africa’s before the April 1994 election’.

International monitors nevertheless seemed unconcerned about widespread reports of intimidation and coercion.... They also seemed willing to overlook the 1 500 or so political killings perpetrated since the start of the year, along with the roughly 20 500 political fatalities recorded since the people’s war began in September 1984. 

Their views seemed to be summed up by former Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley, head of the Commonwealth Observer Group, who said in mid-April, ten days before the poll: ‘It is absolutely possible to hold elections that reflect the will of the majority of people even under conditions of violence.’ 

In response, an editorial in The Citizen urged Commonwealth observers and other international monitors not to prejudge the issues. If they had already predetermined that the poll was going to be free and fair, there was little point in their coming to the country at all, the newspaper commented.

Two major British newspapers stood virtually alone in warning that the election was unlikely to be either free or fair. The London Sunday Telegraph criticised the British media for ‘pushing the fairy tale that the peace-loving, democratic ANC, led by the saintly Mr Mandela, is about to come into its inheritance’. 

It went on: ‘South Africa is likely to become the first country outside the former USSR to elect a communist government by supposedly  “democratic” means, even though this might involve tens of thousands of deaths … What is happening is the end-game of a sinister process that has been unfolding since 1984, when the ANC and its ally, the SACP, launched a deliberate campaign to eliminate by terrorism all their black rivals, particularly Inkatha.’

The London Sunday Times commented that both the ANC and the NP were ‘perpetrating on enormous fraud on 40 million South Africans and the rest of the world’. The editorial added: 

‘There is no way that the elections are, by any standard, going to be free and fair… The ANC is determined to take power by riding roughshod over those who stand in its way. The movement’s true nature was exposed when its gunmen mowed down Zulu traditionalists exercising their democratic right to demonstrate their opposition to the election [at the ANC’s Shell House headquarters on 28 March 1994] … 

‘While it preaches democracy, the ANC practises totalitarianism. It prefers to kill its opponents rather than use reason and argument. Its intolerance to criticism and its adherence to communist ideals means South Africa will be a virtual one-party state … Despite all this, Mr De Klerk and the West continue to go along with the charade that all is well.’

This article is an extract from he updated and abridged edition of People’s War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa by Dr Anthea Jeffery, Head of Policy Research at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). It is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers and is available at all good bookstores. 


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