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Does fairness in SA politics really exist?

All's fair in love and war - and politics, it would seem. Or is it?

Recently, several allegations have been made against the African National Congress (ANC) for abusing state resources during its electoral campaign.

Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille has accused the ANC of using its position as governing party to boost its majority at the polls on 7 May.

A number of instances have been reported of cash being handed out to voters by the president himself.

Media reports have also revealed that the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) distributed food parcels at a recent ANC rally. There has also been the rather coincidental handing out of T-shirts during government ministers' walkabouts.

It also seems as if government advertising has been on the rise, explaining the ANC government's 'good story to tell' and even stretching as far as ubiquitous advertisements for the South African National Defence Force.

At an Institute for Security Studies (ISS) seminar on money and politics, DA MP Lance Greyling advocated a total ban on government advertising during election campaign periods to minimise opportunity for the governing party to use the resources of state as part of its campaign for votes.

The DA has referred the abuse of state resources to the Public Protector for investigation and has also instituted action in the Cape High Court, sitting as the Electoral Court, against abuses by Sassa.

The trend of unfair campaigning is not new, as we witnessed quite similar accusations being levelled by opposition parties against the ANC in the run-up to the 2009 general elections.

Then, the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) alleged the ANC was guilty of contravening the electoral code of conduct by illegally removing posters of opposition parties, for instance.

Media reports at the time indicated that some ANC campaigners threatened owners of RDP houses that they would lose their properties if they failed to cast their votes in support of the ruling party.

However, the ruling party is not the only political party that was alleged to have breached the electoral code of conduct in the campaigning period preceding the 2009 election.

The Freedom Front Plus filed criminal charges against the DA for circulating SMSs urging people not to vote for the party.

Before the elections, parties sign up to the electoral code of conduct (which is provided for in Schedule 2 of the Electoral Act 73 of 1998), which requires they adhere to certain standards of behaviour during the campaigning period specifically.

The electoral code is aimed at producing a political context conducive to free and fair elections; fostering acceptance of democratic political activity; encouraging free political campaigning; and stimulating open public debate on pertinent social, economic and political issues affecting the broader South African society.

The code of conduct describes 'prohibited conduct' as making statements which in any way incites violence or results in the persecution of any candidates or voters.

It restrains political parties or individual candidates from disseminating spurious or vilifying allegations directed at representatives of political parties. It also places an embargo on individuals or groups in respect of passing off symbols, colours or acronyms of other registered political parties as their own.

The aim is to lower the propensity for the emergence of electoral violence that may ultimately undermine stable elections and democracy.

Furthermore, the code stipulates that no person or political party may offer any inducement or reward that might influence political party identification or allegiance, nor infringe on the freedom of association of individuals in respect of attending and participating in public meetings or political events.

It further outlaws the use or display of armaments during political meetings, demonstrations, rallies or public political events and safeguards people's right of access to other people for the purposes of voter education, soliciting support for any political party or candidate, accumulating funds and so on.

The code, in addition, disallows any person or party from interfering with the electoral campaign and marketing strategies of other parties, by prohibiting people from vandalising or removing the banners, posters, advertisements or any other materials used by political parties or candidates.

Ultimately, the code of conduct forbids any political party or person from misusing a position of power or influence to alter the regulation or end result of an election.

Any political party or person found to be in breach of the electoral code of conduct might be subjected to penalties and fines determined by the Electoral Court to ensure that all parties and individuals contesting the elections comply with the code.

Depending on the severity of the violation, the court reserves the right to issue a formal warning or fine to any value below R200,000 or to bar any political party or individual from making use of public media to promote its political objectives, distributing electoral adverts, pamphlets amongst others.

It is clear that the electoral code of conduct fulfills a pivotal role during election time as it provides clear guidance as to the behaviour of all the key actors participating in the electoral processes, which is instrumental in yielding credible, free and fair elections and ensuring a public commitment to fair play from all parties.

So, the question really remains whether what the ANC is doing falls under the definition of 'prohibited conduct' so as to have a direct bearing or influence on the election result, or whether it is simply the mixture between a crass form of vote buying and utilising the benefits of incumbency as any political party would do.

Thus far the DA has not made any formal complaint except via the media so there has been no independent adjudication of the allegations.

Governing parties typically utilise their dominant position to garner votes.

One could very well argue that handing out cash is the crudest form of such campaigning.

Yet, often 'on the stump' these things happen so quickly and, given the pace of campaigns in South Africa, are soon forgotten.

KwaZulu-Natal MEC Meshack Radebe displayed the more insidious form of abuse when he said that social grants were only for 'ANC supporters'. This is a more dangerous form of rhetoric and ultimately more damaging.

Had the matter been taken to the Electoral Court it would not have mattered since the words can now not be withdrawn. Hopefully the people who heard these words also heard that Radebe was wrong and that it was their Constitutional right to receive a grant no matter whom they voted for.

So, in some ways the law can assist us, in other ways it is merely of retrospective assistance. Because what ultimately creates free and fair elections is a deeply entrenched democratic culture which will ensure that citizens are able to discern when public money is abused on the campaign trail and when opportunistic untruths are told to garner votes.

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).