The Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) says it is “not hell-bent” on holding local government elections “at all costs” in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, but has to make technical preparations in the event elections do go ahead as planned in October.
“We want to reiterate that we are technically preparing for an election because of the constitutional requirement for regular elections. That does not amount to the IEC saying an election cannot be postponed in any circumstances,” said IEC chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo.
He said the IEC instituted an inquiry led by retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke because it wants all factors that affect the conduct of free and fair elections to be systematically analysed.
“Those factors are the constitutional provisions, the statutory provisions, medical evidence, the feeling of ordinary South Africans, the views of political parties and so on.
“Once the report is availed to the commission, the commission will interact with it and make a determination whether indeed there’s likely to be a free and fair election,” said Mamabolo.
Moseneke agreed that the process was not a waste of the nation’s time. The IEC was looking for genuine guidance and support to come to a proper conclusion, as the law allows.
Mamabolo presented the IEC’s submission to the Moseneke Inquiry on Free and Fair Local Government Elections on Monday. The inquiry is looking into the likelihood that the IEC will be able to ensure that the elections will be free and fair in view of the challenges posed by the pandemic and measures promulgated by the government to curb its spread.
“There is no binary choice between timeously holding the forthcoming general elections and ensuring that they are free and fair,” said Mamabolo. “The constitution requires both, hence the need for this inquiry.”
He explained that the IEC has to technically prepare for an election should that election be lawfully called. “By technical preparation, we mean procuring voting stations, training staff who will run the electoral process, preparing arrangements for candidate nomination and the like,” he said.
Mamabolo said elections could be postponed by asking the Constitutional Court for a remedy which involves an authorisation of the conduct of elections outside the 90-day period.
“That would be an extraordinary relief that I think the ConCourt would be cautious to issue given the constitutional imperative for a five-year term,” he said. However, it was possible as the constitution and the law in general does not expect people to perform the impossible.
“If the trajectory of the pandemic is such that the mortality rate increases and people are afraid to go out, in those circumstances it might be prudent to approach the Constitutional Court for that extraordinary relief.
“It would have to be well-substantiated, and well-reasoned and possibly with an accompanying timetable to support the relief,” said Mamabolo.
The other likelihood is a possible constitutional amendment, he said, but warned that different stakeholders held different views about the propensity to amend the constitution when you face a circumstance of difficulty such as is the case with Covid-19.
By law, the general election of all municipal councils should be held within 90 days of the date of the expiry of the five-year term of municipal councils. Since the last general local government elections took place on August 3 2016, the current term of all municipal councils will expire on August 3 2021 and general local government elections will have to be held by November 1 2021 to elect new municipal councils.
Some political parties have expressed concern that the municipal elections may not be free and fair given the effect of Covid-19 and the lockdown restrictions.
“It’s the ability to access the voters through normal modes of campaigning [like] door-to-door, community meetings and so on. There are parties who hold a view that absent those possibilities, an election will not be free and fair,” said Mamabolo.
It is also the fact that for the past 14 months people may have been put off registering and ultimately voting because of a real fear that they may be exposing themselves to Covid-19 by going to voting stations.
Mamabolo said while by-elections are substantially and materially different from a general election, they indicate a psychological disposition of people about participating.
He said in the by-elections held in November and in December, the turnout had been comparable, with no marked decline in participation levels.
The commission will undertake a pre-voting study with the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) to check what are the hindrances that people perceive which may negate their participation in the process, said Mamabolo.
The department of health told the IEC in April that it would have vaccinated 16 million people by October 27.
“In terms of the plans as they stood, 16 million people would have been vaccinated by October 27. Maybe that target has changed, but that was the information placed to political parties and the commission on April 22,” he said.
Mamabolo said due to budget cuts, the IEC had not budgeted for PPE and was in discussions with the National Treasury about that.
There was also a proposal made in the national party liaison committee to extend the number of special voting days from two to possibly three. This too would require additional budget.
He acknowledged public consternation when the IEC held an elections launch earlier this month, but explained the launch was part of the technical preparatory work that the election commission had to undertake to say to the country: “This is the message, this is the campaign, these are the platforms where the campaign is going to find practical expression and so on.”
By Andisiwe Makinana – TimesLIVE