Read an excerpt from Spoilt Ballots – the definitive history of elections in South Africa
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As South Africans head to the polls this week, Penguin Random House SA has shared an excerpt from Spoilt Ballots: The Elections that Shaped South Africa, from Shaka to Cyril by Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall.

‘With their trademark wit, levity and meticulous research, Nick Dall and Matthew Blackman have told the stories of South Africa’s long history at the polls in a compelling and entertaining way, bringing narratives to life through the protagonists and the juicy sideshows.’ – Mandy Wiener, journalist and author

If you paid even a moment’s attention during high-school history lessons, you probably know that 1910 brought about the Union of South Africa, that the 1948 general election ushered in apartheid, and that the Rainbow Nation was born when Madiba triumphed in the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.

Spoilt Ballots dishes the dirt on these pivotal events in our history. But it also sheds light on a dozen lesser-known contests, starting with the assassination of King Shaka in 1828 and ending with the anointing of President Cyril at Nasrec in 2017.

Spoilt Ballots is as much about the people who voted in some of our most decisive elections as it is about those who didn’t get to make their mark. It explains why a black man in the Cape had more political rights in 1854 than at any other point in the ensuing 140 years and how the enfranchisement of women in 1930 was actually a step back for democracy.

The book will leave you wondering if Oom Paul Kruger’s seriously dicey win in the 1893 ZAR election might have paved the way for the Boer War and whether ‘Slim Jannie’ Smuts really was that slim after all. It shows how the Nats managed to get millions of English-speakers to vote for apartheid and why the Groot Krokodil’s attempt to co-opt coloureds and Indians into the system backfired spectacularly.

Entertaining and impeccably researched, Spoilt Ballots lifts the lid on 200 years of electoral dysfunction in our beloved and benighted nation.


Read an excerpt:


In the lead-up to the 1994 election, the country was awash with political confusion and violence. Within the ANC, Mandela stepped to the fore and Cyril Ramaphosa emerged as a conference favourite, while allies Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki failed in their attempt to control the party behind the scenes. On the white right, the AWB began the killing, and in KZN a murderous power struggle played out.

1994: The first steps to freedom

‘My God, he’s done it all,’ Allister Sparks whispered to a fellow journalist as he watched Fw de Klerk’s 2 February speech in Parliament from an adjoining briefing room. In one fell swoop, De Klerk unbanned the ANC, SACP and PAC, lifted emergency regulations and media restrictions, and released Mandela. ‘It is time for us to break out of the cycle of violence,’ De Klerk stated, ‘and break through to peace and reconciliation.’

Nine days later, on 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison. He had gone to prison when the hand signal of the anti-apartheid movement was the thumbs up. He exited jail (with his controversial wife, Winnie, at his side) raising the fist of black power. Then, with Walter Sisulu beside him and Cyril Ramaphosa holding the microphone, he spoke to the world for the first time in twenty-seven years from the balcony of Cape Town City Hall, overlooking the Grand Parade. ‘Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all,’ he began. But the peace was short-lived.

Sebokeng: Shooting people in the back

On 26 March 1990, an ANC protest ended in what would become an all-too-familiar scene. When the sun set on the township south of Johannesburg, at least eleven protestors lay dead and around 400 were injured. The massacre occurred after a crowd of about 50 000 set out from Sebokeng to Vereeniging to present a list of grievances. The police claimed that five stones had been thrown at them during the march. The commanding officer, W. du Plooy, confirmed that he had not ordered his men to fire on the crowd, but that five stones were provocation enough. Many of the victims were shot in the back while attempting to flee the scene. Mandela immediately called off a meeting with the government, stating that De Klerk could not ‘talk about negotiations on the one hand and murder people on the other’.


De Klerk’s 2 February speech had caught everybody by surprise, not least the ANC. They were ideologically confused and unsettled as to how to approach negotiations. Trained members of Umkhonto we Sizwe in exile, who were still composing and practising martial songs about marching to Pretoria, were now being issued South African travel documents and welcomed home by white immigration officials.

Initially, there was a mixed bag of unhappiness, justified paranoia and utter organisational chaos in the ANC. The recently released Sisulu was genuinely shocked by the level of dissent and confusion that reigned among the rank and file in meetings in Lusaka. Adding to this confusion, the ANC began incorporating local UDF structures and established a political alliance with COSATU. Within this alphabet soup was not only every race and language group in South Africa, but a mixed muddle of exiles and ‘inziles’ (as domestic activists were termed) who had decidedly different political cultures. Just how they all managed to form a single political serving is perhaps one of the great South African miracles.

Conference calls

Even Mandela was partly hamstrung by the divisions. In July 1991, in Durban, the ANC held its first conference in South Africa in over thirty years. Jacob Zuma, with hair still covering the patch from which the showerhead would later emerge, welcomed the 2 224 delegates to his home province. Mandela stood unopposed for the position of president and was effectively handed the mantle from Oliver Tambo, who, clearly suffering from the side effects of a stroke, gave the opening address.

But the conference went directly against Madiba’s wishes when it came to electing a secretary-general, rejecting the incumbent Alfred Nzo, who was his preferred candidate, in favour of a young COSATU leader named Cyril Ramaphosa. In fact, three men ran for the position. The third was Jacob Zuma, but Ramaphosa trounced them both.

The whole conference was filled with factious jostling. Chris Hani and Thabo Mbeki had both wanted to run for the position of deputy president, and both took some persuading not to by the party elders who felt that a head-to-head battle would weaken the party in the eyes of the country. Mbeki would have his long-time ally Zuma run for the position of secretary-general. When Zuma (and the Mbeki faction) lost humiliatingly to Ramaphosa, Zuma was obliged, in Anthony Butler’s words, ‘to retreat licking his wounds’.

The conference also elected many UDF members into the National Executive Committee, ‘inziles’ who were largely unknown to Mandela and exiles like Mbeki and Zuma. In his closing remarks, outgoing secretary-general Nzo took time to tick off the party: the ANC lacked ‘enterprise, creativity and initiative,’ he commented. ‘We appear very happy to remain pigeonholed within the confines of populist rhetoric.’ Not the most positive farewell message, but certainly the most honest.

A right mess

But if there were hidden divisions in the ANC, the divisions among the white right were apparent for all to see. When the leader of the CP, Andries Treurnicht, called for a mass meeting after Rooivrydag (Red Friday, the day of De Klerk’s ground-breaking speech) at the Voortrekker monument, 60 000 Afrikaners arrived with horses, ox wagons and guns. There Treurnicht, despite being a ‘long-standing proponent of nonviolence’, promised ‘a third freedom struggle’ and a Volkstaat for the Afrikaner people. And you only had to look at the flags being flown to register that something was rotten in the Volkstaat of Treurnicht’s imagination: waving in the crowd flew the old ZAR Vierkleur, the flag of the Orange Free State and the three-armed swastika of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB). Under this Nazi-like banner was the bearded visage of Eugène Terre’Blanche, a belligerent firebrand, vulgar racist and lifelong advocate of violence. ET wanted to fight ‘like our forefathers fought’ to call his home a Volkstaat, but the simple truth was that the right-wingers had no single vision. Some have estimated that at the time there were 186 right-wing organisations all claiming to speak in some way for the volk.

The AWB’s campaign of murder

In 1990 over fifty acts of right-wing terror were committed. Of these, the most serious was near Durban in October 1990, when three AWB members opened fire on a bus killing seven black people and wounding twenty-seven. Between 1991 and 1993, at least forty similar shooting episodes took place.

In 1991 the AWB also began a bombing campaign. The targets were generally either NP or ANC offices and left-wing Afrikaans newspapers. Hillview High School was bombed because it planned to admit black students, as was the war museum where the peace treaty that ended the Boer War had been signed. But their most murderous bombs were saved for the days before the election …

The AWB were not only interested in murdering innocent black people. Almost on par with their hatred of other races was a passionate hatred for volksverraiers – Afrikaners seen to be betraying the volk. And volksverraier number one was F.W. de Klerk.

The Battle of Ventersdorp

On 9 August 1991 De Klerk was scheduled to give a speech in Ventersdorp, an ultra-right stronghold. That night Terre’Blanche called up around 2 000 AWB members to prevent De Klerk from speaking. This deployment of khaki-clad, swastika-emblazoned right-wingers came armed with rifles, pistols and tear gas, and the front line of men had their arms cast in plaster of Paris to fend off police dogs. They were met by around 1 500 armed policemen. Guns were fired, and a thirty-minute melee of hand-to-hand fighting broke out on Voortrekker Street. By the end of it, three AWB members lay dead and around forty were injured. Seven policemen were also wounded in the fighting, several being treated for gunshot wounds. The AWB then turned on members of the local black population, who had to be protected and rescued by the police. It was the first time since the Rand Revolt that police had opened fire on and killed white protestors.

I(ndia) F(oxtrot) Papa Zulu

Although many thought the white right would be the most troublesome roadblock to the election process, this was not the case. As Martin Meredith states, the right’s political and terror activities were soon ‘overshadowed by a far greater danger emerging from the green rolling hills of Natal where a vicious struggle for power had developed. It centered on the controversial leader of the KwaZulu homeland, Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi.’


Categories Non-fiction South Africa South African Current Affairs

Tags Book excerpts Book extracts Matthew Blackman Nick Dall Penguin Random House SA Spoilt Ballots

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