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No-go zones have no place in a democratic society

- William Gumede

IEC must come down hard on parties that refuse to allow others to campaign in what they see as their areas.

No-go zones, which is evident again in the run-up to the 1 November 2021 local elections, whereby supporters in their parties’ electoral strongholds, prevent other parties candidates from parties other than those they support, from campaigning in the areas they dominate, undermine free and fair elections.

EFF leaders last week were prevented from entering a voting station at Dambuza township in Pietermaritzburg, after ANC supporters blocked them, saying the area is “an ANC” area.

It appears that not only political parties have created no-g0 zones for other parties, but in some rural areas, traditional leaders often prevent parties they disagree with from campaigning in their areas. Some traditional leaders, chiefs and kings in some rural areas appear to align themselves with one political party, and then deliberately make it difficult for other parties to campaign in their areas.

The phenomenon of no-go zones is based on intolerance - the inability to accept different views and groups to one’s own, as legitimate also.

Intolerance is at the heart of many political conflicts across the globe. Intolerance of different views, parties and groups has been one of the main reasons why democracy has failed to take hold in many postcolonial African countries.

No-go zones during election campaign periods is a phenomenon also widely seen in many post-independence African countries. In Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Algeria, opposition parties are in most cases not allowed to campaign in what is seen as ruling party strongholds. In Zimbabwe, there is the added phenomenon whereby most traditional leaders in the rural areas are aligned with the ruling Zanu-PF, and they do not allow opposition parties to campaign in the rural areas under their control.

The Ivory Coast for example, is effectively divided into a Muslim north and Christian, where during election campaigns political parties dominant in one region, are not allowed to campaign in the other, and the other way round. This is among the main reasons why the 201o elections in the Ivory Coast plunged into violence, leaving more than 3000 people dead and 500 000 displaced.

Intolerance appears to be ingrained in South Africa’s politics. Yet, unless it is tackled, it will continue to undermine attempts to build a quality democracy. During the apartheid-era, certain areas were controlled by specific political parties, and other political parties were often barred from entering areas controlled by other parties. If opposing parties do enter, they were likely to be met with violence by the opposition parties.

In KwaZulu-Natal for example, ANC members and supporters could not enter on death to Inkatha Freedom Party strongholds, and the other way around. Similarly, in the 1980s in Crossroads on the Cape Flats, Comrades – United Democratic Front/ANC aligned individuals could not venture into Witdoeke areas, the conservative black vigilante group, supported then by apartheid security elements, who were known by the white strips of cloth they wore to identify themselves.

In the 1980s the Black Consciousness orientated Azanian People’s Organisation and UDF/ANC did not tolerate each other’s members and supporters in their strongholds in Soweto or Port Elizabeth. Similarly, in the 1980s, UDF/ANC and Black Consciousness supporters were not allowed to operate in many homelands.

The right of parties and candidates to compete for political power in areas they may not have majority support is crucial to multiparty democracy. Candidates and political parties must have freedom of movement during the campaign period. Parties and candidates also have the right to security when it comes to their lives and property when they campaign.

Freedom to campaign during elections is absolutely integral to democracy. Election campaigns are crucial for political parties and candidates to present their policy, positions and account for their records whether in government or opposition. Voters have the right to hear out parties and candidates.

At the local government level, it is even more important for voters to see – and hear the candidates standing for election, and to be able to ask them questions or to challenge them in person on their views, actions and promises.

Democratic elections require voters to be reasonably informed about the candidates and parties. This means that all parties have the right to campaign on an equal basis with other parties - to get their message across to voters. Equality of competition for votes is critical.

Parties and candidates also need a fair chance to compete to win the support of voters. No-g0 zones deprive voters from getting information about parties, candidates and policies to make informed voting choices.

South Africa’s Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantee the right of every candidate and political party to have the opportunity to put forward their views through campaigning – and the right of voters to hear such views in order to make up their minds.

Every political party and candidate have the right to express political opinions without interference, unless it's hate speech or incitement to violence.  

No-go zones create such fear, that voters who may not support the party which supposed to dominate the areas they live, will become too afraid to vote for other parties – fearing retribution, or they would try to stay away from voting.

A township, town or village is not owned by any political party. The Independent Electoral Commission must become stricter with parties’ whose leaders, members or supporters prevent other parties from campaigning in areas they deem theirs. Members, supporters and leaders of parties who prevent opponents from campaigning should be fined. In the worse cases, candidates and parties should lose their right to stand for elections in the areas they have prevented opponents from campaigning. 

The IEC should declare an election in an area where candidates and parties were prevented from campaigning by others as not free and fair, and either disqualify the perpetrators, or call for a re-election.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg) This article was first published in the Sunday Times Daily.