Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Johannesburg - Thousands of visually impaired South Africans who participated in Wednesday's national elections grappled with several challenges, including officials trying to interfere as they cast their ballot, advocacy group Blind SA said on Friday.

The organisation said its 36 volunteer observers visited over 200 voting stations to ascertain whether blind and partially sighted voters were allowed a secret vote as prescribed by law.

"Tens of thousands of blind and partially sighted voters cast their vote at the (elections)," it said. "The majority of these voters did not have the secret vote since they were subjected to the presiding officers and in some instances in front of the party agents reading the list aloud to the blind voter."

In one instance, Daan van Niekerk who voted at Queenswood said he told the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) presiding officer that he wanted his trusted friend to fill in the ballot paper on his behalf at the polling booth.

"She said that she has to vote for me and that she would not allow my friend to vote for me ... This is the first time since 1994 that I had this argument," van Niekerk said, adding that he eventually prevailed in the argument.

Van Niekerk said he also took exception when two observers came too close as he was voting.

"I told them that that was not what I wanted. I also told them that they are denying me my constitutional right of a private vote. I also told them that they are discriminating against me as a blind person," he said.

Blind SA said the IEC also contravened provisions in South Africa's Constitution and the United Nations Convention which stipulate that blind voters should have equal access to information in braille.

"The IEC failed to produce the braille list at the voting stations," it said. "They did circulate a limited quantity to Blind People’s Organisation and IEC offices in the last week. This certainly was not the solution as was indicated to the Blind SA observers by IEC officials and by blind people."

Blind SA election observer Christo de Klerk said his impression was that none of the electoral presiding officers he witnessed in action had been trained on how to assist blind people.

"I am utterly disgusted with what I found ... I even encountered the attitude of 'What is the big deal? We are here, we can assist you'," he said.

"It seems that there is no understanding among officials that blind people actually have a right to a secret vote."

Blind SA said it had proactively engaged with the IEC prior to the elections for full and equal access for blind and partially sighted voters.

"Blind SA used its resources to create awareness and access to information," said Andre Vosloo, chairperson of its advocacy and information committee.

"It seems a great deal more advocacy and awareness will need to be invested to ensure that blind and partially sighted voters do not suffer the similar fate at the next elections."

African News Agency/ANA