Population undercount raises fears on election


The officially revised estimate of South Africa's population - 40.6 million - may have serious repercussions for next year's general election, the first since the African National Congress ousted the former governing National Party in 1994.

South Africa has admitted that the census it conducted in 1996 was based on an undercount, thus confirming suspicions at the time that the preliminary estimate of 37.9 million was too low. The upwards adjustment by nearly 3 million comes amid concern that the Department of Home Affairs will not be able to ensure that all 24 million potentially eligible voters will be able to cast their ballots on election day.

The ANC-led government has decided - against the advice of the Independent Electoral Commission - to recognise only one identity document for the purposes of voting, a green bar-coded identity document or ID. Its stated purpose in doing so is to reduce electoral fraud.

While acknowledging the theoretical desirability of making the bar-coded IDs the only valid document for identification, the IEC believes that about 20 per cent of the electorate - or more than 10 million voters - do not have the prerequisite IDs. It is sceptical, too, of government assurances that the appropriate documentation will be made available to all voters by polling day.

The Department of Home Affairs, however, has been adamant that the number of potential voters without bar-coded IDs is not more than 5 million. But its calculations are based on the preliminary results of the 1996 census which, statistics South Africa now recognises, rests on an undercount of 3 million.

Thus, even if the Department of Home Affairs is right in insisting that there are fewer voters without bar-coded IDs than the IEC thinks, there will be more than it reckoned with initially. If the department is unable to provide the necessary IDs to all voters who apply for them, a legal challenge against the Electoral Act is in the offing.