IEC staff members sort out ballot papers / ANA
IEC staff members sort out ballot papers / ANA

Are we rushing the elections and will fairness be lost along the way?

By Noni Mokati Time of article published Sep 15, 2021

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OPINION: While IEC officials are almost certain the commission is well on its way to achieving some of its set targets - given the truncated timelines, prevalent challenges in the country's political landscape and the Covid-19 pandemic - there is still a big white elephant that refuses to leave the room.

The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) has set aside this weekend (September 18 - 19) for South Africans to register for this year's local government elections.

The printing process of more than 80 million ballot papers will be finalised over the next few weeks, and the commission has already procured 40 000 voter management devices which will be used for the first time this year to assist the IEC's personnel capture data.

Further, on its agenda, the commission expects that by next week Monday and Tuesday (September 20 - 21), it would have tied down the proclamation of the election, closed the voters' roll, re-opened candidate nominations and oversee the submission of party lists, dealt with the payment of deposits, published the election timetable, opened applications for special votes and closed off the nomination of candidates, among other things.

This hive of activity comes almost a week after the Constitutional Court dismissed the IEC’s application to move the elections to next year.

While IEC officials are almost certain the commission is well on its way to achieving some of its set targets - given the truncated timelines, prevalent challenges in the country's political landscape and the Covid-19 pandemic - there is still a big white elephant that refuses to leave the room.

That elephant is whether this year's elections will truly be free and fair, or is it just another rushed affair?

"If you look at it, we are organising a voter's registration within two weeks. But we have always said we are preparing. So the logistical material we need for the registration weekend is available. It is within our warehouses. The PPE we need for the registration weekend is available. The staff we need have already been recruited and trained. It's just to activate them. The voting stations as well, we are in the process of activating those and re-signing the amendment of lease agreements because we had already signed specific dates which have," say the officials.

Those who formed part of the process to hold the country's first democratic elections in 1994 will tell you of the challenges they too encountered amid being firmly wedged between ambitions of a new democratic dispensation and threats of the elections being possibly derailed and not taking place.

In her earlier conversation with the Insider in May, former IEC chairperson Brigalia Bam recalled how the tensions during that era were so palpable to the point that soldiers had to be deployed in parts of a highlight volatile KwaZulu-Natal to oversee voting stations that faced threats of insurrection.

Decisions had to be made. Tough ones at that.

According to Bam, no time could be wasted. Every second was as important.

Is the commission at the same juncture?

"Not at all," enthuses Terry Tselane, former IEC deputy chairperson and now founder of the Institute of Election Management Services in Africa (IEMSA).

"We knew five years ago that there would be an election. It can't be described as rushed because there is preparation work that the IEC has done. In addition, the IEC has been saying it is ready. Therefore, you can't compare 2021 with 1994. Back then, we didn't know when the elections would be announced, and that announcement happened within four months. This time, the laws around elections are embedded in the Constitution."

Notwithstanding the fact that in his advisory report, retired deputy chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke indicated ... "the scheduled elections are likely to be free and fair if they were to be held not later than February 22" the officials concede that the apex court has made its ruling and their duty is to uphold that particular ruling.

One of their side preoccupations is that the conversation around Concourt's ruling has also amplified the safety of voter's during these elections.

Interestingly, justiceinitiative.org notes that in May last year, the Pan-African Lawyers Union (PALU) submitted a request seeking guidance from the African Court on Human and People’s Rights for states and regional institutions on how to hold elections during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In April 2020, South Korea was also the first to hold national elections shortly after the Coronavirus outbreak.

For South Africa, the litmus test for hosting elections was during the by-elections, which officials insists placed them in good stead as they were able to use those elections to slightly gauge what mechanisms could be put in place ahead of the November 1 elections.

And during this crunch time, does the commission have what it takes?

"In terms of the Constitution, the IEC has to manage elections and to deliver the results within a reasonable period. I believe the IEC will pull them off. IEC has over the years built a pool of expertise to do this," adds Tselane.

He maintains that lessons learnt during his tenure are that the leadership of the IEC is duly required to protect and defend the integrity of the institution.

"It was important for us to continue to have conversations with political parties, including the bilateral conversations with other stakeholders to iron out any intricacies that would have arisen. We went beyond what was in law to find common ground with them."

While it is too early to tell if the turnout this weekend will give the IEC an indication if they are on the right trajectory, Mamabolo insists the voter registration weekend is a necessity and that all voting stations will be opened.

Tselane agrees.

"A voters registration weekend is an opportunity for a voter to put their names on a voter's roll. It is also a period where IEC is making infrastructure available."

He notes there are still structural difficulties where the voter's roll is concerned, and his experience lies with the Tlokwe debacle a few years where the credibility of the municipal elections a few years ago came under scrutiny after people were bused to vote in the North West region, necessitating Concourt to later rule that voters must have verified addresses.

Tselane is also adamant that what the Covid-19 pandemic has done though, is to heighten the conversation around another white elephant stuck in the room – electronic voting.

"Yes, the time for that conversation is ripe now more than ever. In 2013, the commission undertook a study in electronic voting. In 2015, we had a meeting with all the political parties. Although there were initially some objections, all the political parties have since then embraced the concept of electronic voting. The opportunity has arisen for the commission to conduct a feasibility study, particularly in rural areas. What is, however, important is that electronic voting is not easy and must take into account many elements, but it is doable."

On the other hand, officials reveals that for the first time this year, the IEC will widen the scope around special votes to de-congest voting stations.

This may include stipulating how South Africans who have contracted Covid-19 and wish to vote will be assisted.

But for now, the only rush the IEC looking forward to is that the youth and all eligible South Africans will ensure they are registered to vote.

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