Are food parcels being abused to manipulate voters?

By Christi van der Westhuizen

‘‘I‘m going to make sure that if you advertise (sic) an article about my name on the newspaper I will deal with you… If you go to the paper with that thing you’re going to deal with the consequences thereafter… I am not threatening you, you are threatening yourself. You cannot just go and investigate randomly. Give me the name. I told you, give me the name of the person who has called you from Cope.’’

These are the words of Thamsanqa Cube, an civil servant working at the department of social development’s South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) in the Northern Cape town of Prieska. Cube threatened me during a call which I had made to get his response to allegations that the SASSA office in Prieska is using food parcels to boost the ANC’s electoral support.

His threats may, among others, be a reflection of how high political temperatures are running in some small towns in the Northern Cape before the elections. Given the dearth of economic activities in this mostly rural province, politics is frequently the only game in town.

This is exemplified by the multitude of vehicles driving around with stickers and flags proclaiming their owners’ political allegiance, which is mostly to the ANC. The emergence of Cope seems to have raised political tensions in the Pixley ka Seme district (towns such as Prieska); Siyanda district (Upington and Keimoes); Francis Baard district (Kimberley); and Namaqua district (Pofadder).

Allegations include intimidation and abuse of state resources, such as food parcels and public sector employment. Cope’s secretary in Prieska and former ANC councillor, Giel MacDonald, claimed that the local SASSA office ‘‘suddenly’’ started distributing food parcels to residents three months ago.

‘‘We have had poverty and unemployment for five years and it’s never happened before. But only certain people get the parcels. The hampers are dropped off with cars covered in ANC stickers. The volunteers wear ANC T-shirts.’’

He admits that some people ‘‘are not stupid. But others say ‘the ANC gives me food, I have to vote for them’.’’

What raises suspicions is that the local phone number for SASSA is stuck on the wall of the office of the ANC’s electoral coordinator in Prieska, as I noticed when I visited the office at the beginning of April.

Cube confirmed that he is responsible for food parcel drop-offs. He denied claims that recipients are told that the SASSA food parcels are ‘‘ANC food parcels’’.

MacDonald also alleged that job opportunities in the local municipality are used to manipulate voters. The ‘‘arrogance is so bad that people have been told that only ANC members will get jobs’’ at a new municipal road works project. In response, Cope arranged a protest march to the municipality’s offices in March that ended in a verbal slinging match.

He also contended that ANC campaigners tell voters that, ‘‘the ANC has built you a house and the ANC can take it back.’’

According to MacDonald, the ANC abuses the ignorance of some of ‘‘the most vulnerable people’’. ‘‘They cannot distinguish between state and party. They tell you: ‘my child, sorry, I can’t be with you (Cope) because I need my money. We inform them that they pay VAT which goes to the state’s coffers.’’

There seemed to be a strong dose of hyperbole in his statements. Attempts to find evidence for his allegations delivered mixed results.

Regarding the food parcels, Cube told me that he was not allowed to speak to the media and that I should phone his manager. But he would not divulge his manager’s number if I didn’t reveal to him the details of the people who made the allegations about the food parcels. When I indicated that I first needed to check with the people concerned, he threatened me. He also refused to provide me with his manager’s number.

He did however say that ‘‘we have nothing to clear up because our administration is clean’’. He also declared that ‘‘here are two departments in Prieska delivering food parcels. We have the department of health delivering food parcels… I know for a fact we didn’t do that (say that food parcels are from the ANC). Cope will do whatever to turn things (their) way.’’

With monitors of the non-governmental Election Monitoring Network I visited the Swartz family in E’thembeni township in Prieska who had allegedly recently received a food parcel. They denied it, insisting that they are ineligible for food parcels because they receive two state pensions – despite their 26-year-old son Urben being unemployed.

Next-door neighbour Elsie Bosman happily admitted that she had so far this year received three food parcels. She sells crisps and fudge that she bakes herself and earns between R10 and R36 per day.

According to her, she applied for a food parcel at the beginning of last year. ‘‘I know I’m getting the food parcel from SASSA and not from the ANC. I filled in a form and they took my thumb print, so this is not under the table or favouritism,’’ she stated. She also denied that the drop-offs were made by people in ANC paraphernalia.

But an interview with another resident who is an ardent long-time supporter of the ANC but is critical of its leadership cast a different light. In the street where he lives in E’thembeni, needy families have not received parcels while, he alleged, people with family connections at SASSA received food aid.

‘‘Speaking straight I can tell you that food is made available for poor people but it does not end up with the poor people.’’ He confirmed information from other sources that food aid is sometimes delivered at night.

He is critical of Cope, saying that there is a ‘‘certain unpleasantness’’ in Cope and that its members have agendas. But, he said, the ‘‘colourless streets are still colourless’’ and the corrugated iron houses are getting more, not less. ‘‘It’s going well with ANC leaders, they sleep in hotels and fly in planes and forget about the poor people. It’s good for the ANC to realise it’s not the only bull in the kraal.’’

The last word goes to the ANC’s regional electoral coordinator for Pixley ka Seme district, Rodney Pieters. He dismissed the allegations about food parcels out of hand. ‘‘We have not received a single one of those allegations. No one has ever complained — even to the IEC or the police or SASSA. The ANC is not involved in any food parcel distribution. That is the government. We don’t need the government to do our programmes. We are on the ground on a daily basis.’’

This article by independent journalist and political analyst Christi van der Westhuizen is made available by the non-governmental Election Monitoring Network in the interest of a free and fair election. The views expressed are those of the author of the article.


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