By Sy Mamabolo
Every five years, a civic duty falls upon the shoulders of adult South Africans. This is a duty whose importance transcends all other. This duty is the cornerstone of our democratic reality, the bedrock upon which our political system is built. It is the duty of electing public representatives to the National Assembly and provincial legislatures. These representative bodies will cumulatively guide the course of our national destiny. These legislative bodies hold, therefore, an immense national responsibility to fashion a policy trajectory that fosters national development.
To give effect to this constitutionally enshrined duty which is the heartbeat of our Bill of Rights, the Electoral Commission was created and subsists to this moment. As a Commission, we do understand the depth of our responsibility as an institutional facilitator of those rights which make governance of the country a reality. Alive toenormity of our national responsibility, we stand here today, infused with an indomitable spirit and unshakable determination, ready to embark on the journey to delivering the General Elections of National and Provincial legislatures next year. We simply refer to these elections as NPE 2024.
We are ready to embark on this constitutional journey because of the imminent conclusion of the terms of our current legislatures. The sixth National Assembly and the nine provincial legislatures’ terms of office concludes in the middle May 2024. A seventh Parliament of the democratic era must be elected within 90 days from that date. Hence, the window period for our national elections stretches from May to the middle of August in 2024.
The authority for setting the election date rests with the President of the Republic after consulting with the commission. Those consultations have commenced but yet to be concluded. A similar framework obtains in respect of provincial legislatures where the provincial Premiers are entrusted responsibility to call and set a date of election after consulting with the commission. We anticipate that, as has been the case in the three decades, that the date for provincial elections will be harmonised with the national elections.
The Electoral Commission confirms that plans to deliver general elections are under way for the earliest possible election date in the constitutional window period.
But let us not forget that the NPE 2024 carries profound historical significance. In 2024, South Africa marks an extraordinary milestone - 30 years of electoral democracy - a testament to the strength and resilience of our nation. Our national credentials as an electoral democracy are fortified with each ensuing election. Surely, 2024 will be no exception.
Equally historic is the dawn of a new era in our electoral politics, one where independent candidates can contest for seats in our national and provincial legislatures. A reality set in motion by the Electoral Amendment Act which was signed into law in April of this year.
Needless to say, this change has significantly affected our institution, sparking numerous revisions to our business processes. At the high-level, some of the implications of the revisions to the electoral system are the following:
• As a novel reality, individuals not affiliated to political parties can stand as candidates for legislative at both national and provincial level
• Our supporting Information and Communication Technology applications have been or are being re-written anew. These include the Candidate Nomination System, and the Results System.
• The portal for the capturing of supporting signatures for unrepresented parties and independent candidates is ready for deployment. We are eagerly awaiting the outcome of the Constitutional Court’s application relating to the quantum of signatures before public release.
The commission has set in motion a comprehensive roadmap or a critical path that underpins our preparations for NPE 2024. We address salient aspects hereunder.
Our framework for electoral administration is predicated on the delimitation of voting districts which are a nucleus for the delivery of electoral services. Necessarily, leading to a general election, voting districts had to be reviewed concomitantly with voting stations. Voting stations must be chosen to facilitate easy access to the communities they serve. Consequent to this review, and with consultation with Municipal Party Liaison Committees, 23,269 voting stations have been determined for NPE 2024.
In response to the changing legal landscape around elections as well as the requirement to retain an address of a voter upon registration, the commission introduced a Voter Management Device (VMD) in 2021. The VMD is the technological mainstay for the delivery of the impending elections. There will be a live connection with a majority of voting stations through an Access Point Network.
This possibility of a live connection will serve to improve the administrative efficiency of the voting process whilst fortifying necessary controls. Just under 40,000 VMD’s are on hand for use in the forthcoming registration and election events.
The elections in the Covid context we had in 2021 provided hard lessons relating to the VMD technology. The challenges experienced in those elections have now been ameliorated through a number of measures including upgrading the operating system and coding anew business applications running on the devices. Given the uneven distribution of data network connectivity across the country, these VMD’s are capable of automatically and seamlessly mutating between the online and offline modes without disrupting the registration operation.
To enhance the optimal functionality of these devices, all voting stations embarked on a dry-run on October 28. This dry run did not only serve the technical test but was also an opportunity for registration staff to apply the knowledge and competencies gained in the training. This is therefore an investment in the improved quality of registration process.
Registration weekends remain a modality which most affords citizens access to the electoral process. They are a proverbial equaliser of access to the electoral process.
Two such opportunities are planned ahead of the impending elections in 2024. The first of these takes place on 18 and 19 November. The date for the second is subject of consideration by the commission.
Just under 68,000 staff had been recruited and are currently in the final stages of training ahead of the registration weekend. These staff are being taken through a two-module training and a practical session to ensure that they offer an efficient service to citizens. The number of voting staff will increase to 300,000 by the time of the election.
To enable the registration process to proceed seamlessly, 260 tons worth of registration material and equipment has already been delivered to the nine provincial warehouse. This material will soon be dispatched to numerous local storage sites across the country. The current estimate of logistical material to be handled for the election itself is 610 tons excluding ballot papers.
Given the ever-growing penetration of the use of mobile devices in the ordinary course of social and political discourse, the Electoral Commission launched an online voter registration portal in 2021. To date, just over one million transactions have been processed through the portal of which 439,000 are new registrations whilst the balance are re-registrations. The majority of new registrations on the portal are young persons in the age category 20-25. We believe that the portal offers citizens a convenient avenue to enlist on the voters’ roll. Of course, we acknowledge a constraint relating to data costs for a significant proportion of society. In this regard, we are engaging with telecommunications companies to examine possibilities of zero rating this online facility ahead of the election.
Currently, the voters’ roll stands at 26.2 million. Of this, 95% (24,944,440) have a complete address recorded against their name. Women have a greater representation on the voters’ roll at 14.4 million against men whose representation is 11.6 million. The age category with the highest representation is 30-39 years, with 6.6 million voters, followed by age category 40-49 at 5.8 million, and then age category 50-59 at 4.4 million. Young persons in the age category 20-29 account for 3.7 million voters.
An election is not just a legal and logistical enterprise, it is, undoubtedly, also an encounter with the citizens of the country. The commission has engaged just under 2,500 field workers consisting of Municipal Outreach Co-ordinators as well as Democracy Education Facilitators. This category of staff is charged with the responsibility of delivering civic education in communities in the languages spoken in the relevant locality. We target 80,000 community events by the time of the elections. Such community engagement will necessarily mutate into voter and balloting education in tandem with the electoral timelines.
To ensure that we reach out to the much needed youth, we have once again developed content for use on digital platforms, including series of animation videos, audios recordings, social media toolkits, infographics and factsheets. The content will be placed on different social media platforms to specifically target young voters online. Some elements in the mix of voter education content will find expression on both radio and television.
Our newly revamped official WhatsApp Chatbot, 0600 88 00 00, will soon be integrated with our contact centre, which will enable the voters to speak directly to an agent in real time. Various voter education resources and information is available on this platform and will be regularly updated. Just text Hi on WhatApp Number 0600 88 00 00.
In the modern day electoral landscape, it is no longer enough to muster the legal and operational aspects of an election. Various digital harms including disinformation and misinformation on social media holds the possibility to vitiate the credibility of an election. In an endeavour to ameliorate such possible digital harms, the Commission has partnered with social media platforms, META, TikTok and Media Monitoring Africa to co-operate on a framework which expeditiously investigates complaints through the Real411 platform. This framework allows for the evaluation of social media complaints by a committee of three experts and where veracity is established for referral to the platforms for possible removals or such other interventions that may be necessary.
To reiterate, the Electoral Commission is resolute and gearing up to conduct the 2024 National and Provincial Elections. We urge all South Africans to use our online portal to register, check, or update their details, and to participate actively in this pivotal democratic process. Otherwise, visit your voting station on 18 and 19 November.
We call upon all electoral stakeholders to stand united with us to deliver NPE 2024. These general elections will be a testament to the strength of our democracy and a celebration of our collective national being.
We dare not fail. This is your democracy, own it.
*Mamabolo is the Chief Electoral Officer of the Electoral Commission of South Africa. This is an edited version of his keynote address at the launch of the 2024 national and provincial elections.
**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL