OPINION: Democratic backsliding or significant progress for IEC?

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By Sethulego Matebesi

While the level of trust in the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of South Africa has been consistently higher when compared to other institutions, it is ironic how each election presents a new set of challenges that puts this achievement at risk.

Similarly, the 2024 General Elections are facing the same predicament.

The IEC has been crucial in ensuring free and fair elections since 1994. This is a far cry from the decline of trust in institutions such as the Office of the Public Protector and the judiciary, which shocking scandals have rocked over the past few years. These scandals related to the impeachment of the former Public Protector and two judges.

But what factors have contributed to the IEC’s defining feature as a robust democratic institution that fosters good governance? First is the historical context where free and fair elections are crucial to the country’s transition. Secondly, the Constitution provides a robust legal framework that guarantees the IEC’s independence and ensures that it acts independently of government. Thirdly, unlike most public institutions, the IEC is staffed with professionals with expertise in electoral processes and management. Fourthly, the institution is subject to oversight by various independent. Finally, it continuously adopts modern technology to enhance electoral processes and civic education, including using international best practices.

Credibility of the 2024 General Elections

At the beginning of the year, long before the election campaigns gained momentum, the former secretary general of the African National Congress (ANC), Ace Magashule, shot the first challenge that raised questions about the credibility of the IEC. He was adamant that there had been vote rigging in the previous elections. Such pronouncements indicate the inherently asymmetric relationship between political leaders’ aspirations and their responsibility when assuming positions of authority in political parties and government.

Additionally, some allegations about ballot papers being transported by an IEC official without a police escort and other related incidents during special voting raise questions about the commission’s credibility. As we have learned from previous elections, the IEC’s challenges in delivering free and fair elections are complex and difficult, if not impossible, to prevent because of human errors. For example, despite the IEC providing training to electoral officials – the guardians of democratic processes – there have been too many glaring errors in safeguarding ballot papers. The dilemma becomes acute when one realises that the problem, in some instances, is associated with the absence of security measures or where these are dependent entirely on the decisions of presiding officers.

While everyone can make errors, however, where the integrity and trustworthiness of elections are concerned, the consequences of such human failures can be severe. Such incidents can shake public trust in the electoral process, as secure ballot papers are essential for the legitimacy of election results. This can provide malign actors with more effective tools for disinformation creation. But above all, these actors may also weaponise these failures to hollow out democracy.

The 2024 General Elections is, in many ways, the continued realisation of an improbable dream that has materialised in 1994. Not only have South African voters been brought together – albeit figuratively- under the emblem of a rainbow nation, but it has been a marvel to observe how the IEC has become more adaptable and agile over the years.

To maintain public confidence, the IEC must make drastic and sweeping improvements in quality control measures, improve oversight of the distribution of ballot papers, and enhance communication with stakeholders about corrective action taken.

On the whole, however, it is doubtful that the few challenges the IEC experienced will affect the integrity of the 2024 elections. In fact, thirty years later, without eschewing the challenges the IEC faces, its impeccable performance in maintaining and advancing democracy is far more deserving of general recognition than has been acknowledged.