Doubt psychology: Fake news the real threat to democracy

Voters queue to cast their ballots at KwaMashu Hostel, Durban. Technical, logistical, and administrative glitches led to long delays at voting stations, causing frustration and anger, says the writer. Picture: Khaya Ngwenya / Independent Newspapers

Voters queue to cast their ballots at KwaMashu Hostel, Durban. Technical, logistical, and administrative glitches led to long delays at voting stations, causing frustration and anger, says the writer. Picture: Khaya Ngwenya / Independent Newspapers

Published May 31, 2024


Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

With the provisional election results popping up on our television screens and the announcement of the final results expected on Sunday after a resolution of disputes and complaints by candidates, I am brave to reflect on my excitement and disappointment about the elections.

The Constitution provides that one of the values on which the sovereign and democratic state of the Republic of South Africa is founded is “universal adult suffrage” and “a national common voters roll”.

It guarantees that “every adult citizen has the right to vote in elections, and to do so in secret”.

South Africans have always taken as a given that “the universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood”. It says everybody counts.

Universal adult suffrage on a common voters roll is one of the foundational values of our constitutional order. That is why, in these elections, it feels so strange to be let down by legislative provisions, regulations and technology designed to administer the voters roll for such a large part of the election day.

A significant downside to the day was that many citizens at the stations I visited expressed frustration that the factors undermined their human dignity in these elections. As someone involved in civic and voter education to encourage massive voter registration and high voter turnout, I can relate to the widespread frustration.

In the elections, the law required each voter to vote only at the station where they had registered, except for those who notified the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) in advance of their intention to vote elsewhere. The change, meant to solve administrative and logistical problems, unintentionally caused more problems by creating hurdles for voters and headaches for political parties that invested heavily in mobilising voters on election day.

I started my election day well before polling stations opened at 7am.

I arrived at Port Natal in Durban at 6.15am, bright-eyed and comfortably dressed, to assist with putting up the signs to direct voters as they come and to witness the IEC staff conducting the initial procedures of setting up the station.

The first voters arrived early – and waited patiently at stations that were not ready to open on time. Generally, hee voters were supposed to be in and out of the polling station within 10 minutes.

The voting experience was supposed to be straightforward and exciting. The machines with the voters roll were supposed to confirm the station they were registered to vote in and the electoral staff to direct incoming voters to the tables.

But because of technical, logistical, and administrative glitches, the waiting was long throughout the day, and by 9pm, some had given up and gone home. Unfortunately, that has been the case in many stations I visited with observers deployed by the KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council, Kagiso Trust and Sadra (a faith-based organisation that trains people to be conflict mediators), including in KwaMashu hostels where waiting to vote after dark posed a high-security risk to all, especially women and the youth.

Without exception, many people came before dark and waited in long lines, only to be told to go to another station. The police regularly visited the polling stations to ensure everything was ticking over.

Most people got irate about not being able to vote. The anger led to raised voices and threats, but the presiding officers handled the situation calmly and to the best of their ability.

A handful of political parties have threatened to lodge multiple complaints about the extraordinary delays in processing voters and late starting times, saying the administrative glitches had resulted in the exclusion of voters who did all they were required to by law to exercise their freedom to vote.

The gist of it is this: when people cannot vote because of glitches, they feel tremendous anxiety. Inevitably, the anxiety leads to a quest for assurance that the voting pace will improve and the long lines will disappear. To bring a sense of assurance back into their lives, they latch on to misinformation and fake news on social media.

This often leads to a readiness to accept any propaganda and any leader if the leader offers a political structure and symbols that instantly give meaning and order to the individual’s disturbing experience. However, other threats that include disputing an election result that does not provide a two-thirds majority for a specific party are exaggerated and, unfortunately, they produced tightening and hostility during the results announcement period.

Leaders know the basic psychology, and some exaggerate challenges to gain popularity. To strengthen democracy, we must deal with this doubt psychology peddled in social media about the legitimacy of the election process and results owing to the glitches associated with administering the voters roll.

Most political parties in Parliament have failed the citizens in many ways. These include allocating insufficient resources for the elections. Yet, they were quick to increase additional funds for political parties. They reversed the hard-fought-for legislation on the declaration of donations to loosen its checks and balances by passing amendments to allow political parties to receive more public money and escape accountability by keeping the funding under wraps.

Now more than ever, we must develop ways to counter the unwelcome practices of spreading fake news that are beginning to upend our democracy. We cannot take our fragile constitutional values for granted. It is not only a question of weeding out particular personalities or reversing regrettable decisions that threaten to undermine our elections but addressing the things that made them attractive in the first place: that pervasive sense of rising threat.

Ironically, many real threats, including violence and political intolerance, have declined precipitously in the months leading to the elections.

However, manufactured or imaginary threats persist on social media as if to deliberately create fertile ground for political destabilisation that could delay government formation.

The elections made me realise afresh that our democracy is doubly precious and constitutional values extremely fragile because of the human craving for order and security when chaos feels imminent after being unable to vote after doing all the law required.

* Nyembezi is a policy analyst, researcher and human rights activist

Cape Times