What is ZANU-PF doing in our election?

When the ANC declared that ZANU-PF would be observing and campaigning on the 29th of May, many were concerned. Michael Atkins narrows down the risk to a single specific vector

Robert Duigan


Robert Duigan


May 19, 2024

What is ZANU-PF doing in our election?

This electoral season has been full of surprises. But none so much as the invitation of the Zimbabwean ruling party ZANU-PF to assist in the ANC’s election campaign.

ZANU-PF Secretary-General Dr Obert Mpofu stated that they have been in contact with the ANC and are closely monitoring the situation in South Africa. He suggested that ZANU-PF could provide assistance if needed, citing pressing issues in South Africa's political landscape.

Given that what they are primarily known for is organised crime, property dispossession, starvation, ethnic cleansing and above all, rigging elections, this would appear to be a peculiar choice.

But it makes a lot of sense from certain perspectives. From an ANC perspective, there are a few plusses - it signals commitment to radical economic transformation, and establishes new patronage networks with Zimbabwe, which is a prime location for money laundering, mineral smuggling and other forms of organised crime.

The big question everyone is asking, is whether this means the ANC is thinking about rigging the election. It appears not, aside from perhaps the usual marginal bits of crookery that may nudge a vote here or there, but there is an actual risk factor here that nobody has accounted for, but is as obvious as sunshine once you see it.

Expert witness

To answer these questions, I spoke to Michael Atkins, an expert on South Africa’s electoral system and its operational integrity.

According to Atkins, there is no evidence that ZANU-PF will actually be going into voting stations, no formal role has been declared or registered. Nor can they really be said to be offering any advice that the ANC isn’t already aware of on crooking results. overall, Atkins has offered a reassuring account, except on one point.

Most of ZANU-PF’s more effective tactics were very crude, and beyond the scope of the ANC’s powers. In Zimbabwe, the rigging was mainly done by padding the voters roll. This sort of rigging would require a total infiltration of the IEC, and ZANU-PF is not going anywhere near these instruments, nor has the ANC demonstrated any ability to influence the IEC to do so itself.

ZANU-PF also engaged in blatant intimidation in most rural areas, as well as delayed reporting of results and overwriting of ballot records, defended by courts stacked with ZANU-PF loyalists.

But there is no evidence of any f this happening at scale in South Africa, as much as we look for it - the ANC has been confident in electoral outcomes for so long that the sort of disciplined activity required to execute an electoral intimidation campaign is now out of reach.

In South Africa, the sorts of voting corruption that has occurred has happened on a small scale, and the forms of abuse are well-known to both the ANC and to the independent experts: handing out extra ballot papers to loyalists, officials stuffing ballot boxes, deliberately misrecording results, and mis-sorting voting piles.

Mis-sorting is a fairly common issue, even if it occurs at a small scale. Typically, officials will sort votes into bundles of 10 for each party for ease of counting. Sometimes, votes for small parties will be shuffled into big parties’ stacks, or piles will be under- or over-counted by one ballot per bundle.

With multi-partisan oversight, this sort of thing is easily spotted if the observers are even marginally more vigilant than comatose.

Often, misrecording results for tiny parties results in gains for bigger parties, as occurred in the case of the Cape Independence Party, whose votes were erased in a couple of wards. They successfully challenged the IEC on these issues, acquiring them an extra seat on the City council.

According to Atkins, in 2019 (and possibly before and since) people voting multiple times was discovered in multiple locations, though this was successfully covered up. While it was marginal, it still constituted a significant concern. But the IEC closed this loophole by getting pre-registration on the new electoral act.

The IEC has a “pathological aversion” to admitting mistakes or making waves that might embarrass the ANC, but by Atkins’ judgement, the fact that they made a successful effort to close the loophole suggests that they are not compromised, and were not party to the abuses.

Opposition parties in South Africa have criticized the ANC's decision, citing Zanu-PF's electoral record and accusing the ANC of political interference. The Democratic Alliance (DA) plans to lodge a complaint with the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) over the ANC's invitation to Zanu-PF.

Some commentators have pointed out the hypocrisy of wanting election observers from Western countries while inviting ZANU-PF, given the controversies surrounding both political systems.

However, as Atkins notes, there is no evidence that the Zimbabweans will be playing any meaningful role in any real oversight capacity - that is, unless new evidence comes to light, it doesn’t look like they will be entering any voting stations for any reason.

The real risk

On the other hand, Atkins highlighted a very different piece of evidence which every other commentator has so far overlooked, because it will be done in broad daylight, and contravene no law in the country. That is that ZANU-PF will be campaigning for the votes of Zimbabwean immigrants.

When the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit was issued, 245 000 received the right to remain and work in South Africa. The number is now around 178 000. Most estimates now are based on figures at least as old as 2011, but the figures for undocumented Zimbabweans stands at between 1 and 3 million.

With regularly recurring crises of document fraud coming from the Department of Home Affairs and police raids on ID fraud operations, it seems that there may be a potentially large body of our electoral constituency who qualify to vote but do not qualify as legitimate citizens.

The size of this specific constituency is difficult to estimate, but with the reputation ZANU-PF has, it seems unlikely that they will be unmoved by the presence of their former tormentors waiting outside the voting booth.

The ANC, facing an electoral defeat, may be learning from the Americans that flooding the streets with subsidised mass migration may be a saving grace. Unlike the United States, we do require identity documents to vote, but that appears to be less of a problem than one would at first assume.

As the electin nears, polls which have previously been extremely optimistic about the ANC's losing margin are increasingly showing a narrowing gap. As the date approaches, the narrow margin Zimbabwean voters may be able to play in South African election outcomes may count for more than they represent in absolute numbers.

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