This article considers the socio-political and institutional context going into the 2021 local government elections.

The Pandemic and the IEC

The 2021 local government elections occur under unprecedented circumstances and in a constrained context. Faced with close on two years of pandemic conditions, and attendant state of disaster regulations and lockdowns, the normal preparatory activities for the elections by the IEC in terms of the normal electoral cycle were affected, as were the usual forms of outreach and campaigning by political parties to voters.

The unpredictable spread of COVID-19 and its consequences made election planning difficult for the IEC, but these difficulties did not retard its palling and preparations, which as per the IEC’s state of readiness briefing seem to be in place.

In late May 2021, the IEC appointed retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke to lead a process to evaluate the impact of Covid-19 and consider whether the conditions may be conducive for the conduct of free and fair elections. Though this appeared to be extra-ordinary, it was enabled by s 14(4) of the Electoral Commission Act (51 of 1996) which provides for the Commission should it deem necessary to publish a report on the likelihood or otherwise that it will be able to ensure that any pending elections will be free and fair. The Moseneke inquiry concluded its work and submitted its report towards the end of July 2021, recommending that the elections be postponed until February 2022. The IEC subsequently requested that the Constitutional Court grant an urgent declaratory order postponing the local government elections to February 2022.

The IEC argued to the constitutional court, on the basis of the DCJ Moseneke enquiry, that “it is impossible to hold free, fair and safe elections by the deadline of November 1st”.

But the court ordered that the municipal elections not be postponed to a later date and that the elections be held between 27 October and 1 November.

Following the ruling, the IEC started to take measures to ensure compliance with the order of the court but it is obvious that simultaneous to the application to Court, logistical and other preparations were ongoing. The upcoming election nevertheless occurs in challenging circumstances: with fears of a possible acceleration in the transmission of COVID-19 due to campaign events, canvassing, and increased interaction in the planning, management, administration and execution of the election. This is exacerbated by the heightened political tensions within and between political parties, political violence, targeted political assassinations and the recent insurrectionary impulses and in-fighting on candidate nomination processes within political parties; and potential lower voter turnout. Given these challenging circumstances, the short preparatory lead time, and the constrained campaign context, the continuing state of disaster (despite a relaxed lockdown level) and the heightened political atmosphere, the lack of trust and confidence in the electoral process and the IEC in particular, is especially worrying.

Arresting declining trust and confidence in the IEC

In contra-distinction to the period coming into this 2021 local government elections, historically the IEC enjoyed unparalleled high levels of trust and confidence and a superb domestic and international reputation. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has consistently received healthy approval ratings, with majority support from more than two-thirds (60%) of the adult population since 2001 till at least 2016, as shown by both the Human Sciences Research Councils South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) Afrobarometer.

Worryingly, the Afrobarometer shows that by 2021 only about one in three citizens (36%) trusted the Electoral Commission of South Africa. Has this decline been attributable to the consistent denigration of the IEC by political party leaders and their supporters, and ‘social media users’?

The multiple court proceedings brought by political parties (The DA’s application to set aside the reopening of candidate registration, in which they argued that the IEC used the Court ordering elections to go ahead as an opportunity to grant the ANC a reprieve in registering candidates by re-opening both voter registration, as well as candidate registration processes after the ANC initially missed the deadline for candidate registration). The Constitutional Court dismissed this application.

ActionSA, and its party leader, launched a frontal attack on the IEC accusing it of “omitting” the party’s abbreviated name, or acronym, on ward ballot papers, retaining only the ward candidate’s names and the ActionSA logo. Since the 2000 local government elections ballot papers have only borne the name of a ward candidate, the candidate’s party acronym or abbreviation and the logo of the party. It subsequently turned out that ActionSA did not comply with the regulatory requirements when filling out the forms registering the party, which require parties to provide an abbreviation or acronym for the party – along with the other requirements. The Electoral Court found the ActionSA complaint without merit.

The EFF accused the IEC of being a branch of the ANC. And the ANC itself is well known for itself slandering the commission when things have not always gone its way.

As the election voting day and in the lead up to the results announcement, frequent mis- and disinformation is expected to grow as party and candidate campaigning intensifies, making it essential for voters to be able to separate fact from fiction. More importantly, the assault by political propagandists on the credibility of the elections management and administration body through mis- and disinformation has to be countered.

Appropriate and legitimate complaints about the IEC and its management and administration have to be accurately catalogued and itemised to correct maladministration and irregularity, to ensure fair arbitration of disputes, and effective disciplinary processes, sanction and punishment where instances of illegality or egregious infractions of proper election management and administration arise.

Mistrust in the IEC is a matter of grave concern especially when the credibility of the election management and administration is challenged by political parties – who do so without merit and for their own incremental narrow political purposes.

A Crisis of Confidence in institutions, political representation and governmental responsiveness

Political parties often do this in order to externalise the cost of their inability to mediate and manage their own internal conflicts. Otherwise, they pre-emptively excuse their poor(er) electoral performance relative to their and their supporters’ expectations, by blaming the IEC of bias.

This is of special concern, since the continued assault on the reputation and credibility of the IEC by political parties drives public sentiment, often without merit.

In a context of generalised declines in public trust of institutions of authority, public management and administration, finds rife cause for doubt and cynicism among the public. This makes accusations against the IEC seem legitimate and when the outcome of an election is disputed, it casts a pall of doubt on the outcome. Across the continent this mode of behaviour has been a precursor and predictor of intractable, disruptive and debilitating social and political conflict.

Following waves of attacks on its credibility from political parties, their leaders and supporters as well as some social media “users”, overall mistrust in the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has declined remarkably, even if it is only on social media, in the past four weeks from a surprisingly high mistrust index, the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change and the Auwal Socio-Economic Research has found the manner in which the parties have behaved, and the media has covered the elections, a sense has been created that the elections have been and are primarily about the political parties and contestants, rather than about the interests, concerns and aspirations of voters and citizens. Citizens appear to have been unconfident in centring and leading the conversations and have instead rather allowed political parties to set the tone, agenda and issues of conversation around the elections.

In this sense, bad politics have trumped policy, and though both politics and policy remain important this election has been profoundly personality-driven. Types of politics that appear to want to facilitate closed patronage networks through continued manipulation of state tenders, procurement, meddling in state institutions and manipulation of processes – the other more open and prudent in approach but will have its own patron-client set of networks or “networks of influence”.

The local Government election appears to be occurring within a global crisis of politics in general, and political parties in particular.

The exponential rise of independent candidates is due to the factional and fractional credibility crisis emergent in political parties. But there are other more cynical reasons too. Some are genuinely independent. Some, emerge out of residents or rate-payers associations. And yet others as proxies emergent from within political parties themselves. This crisis of representation and responsiveness is manifested in a general crisis of democracy and democratic governance. This is manifested in low levels of trust and confidence in Institutions.

The Afrobarometer 2021 survey finds that Two-thirds (67%) of South Africans would be willing to give up elections if a non-elected government could provide security, housing, and jobs. While the media performs slightly better, trusted by a majority of the country’s citizens – both independent (63%) and government (61%) have better levels of trust than others.

Institutionally Local government fares really poorly with trust in local councils at 24%, and political parties, just as bad – trust in both the ruling African National Congress at 27% and opposition parties, at 24% and continuing to decline. These findings by Afrobarometer are unsurprising, given that the political parties, across the board, tend towards significant fragmentation and fracture, factionalism and fractionalism, and by turns either suffer from an ideological identity crisis or descend into projects of accumulation pursued through the politics of destabilisation, disruption and destruction.

Parties are viewed by citizens as self-interested, and inward-looking and focused only on incremental advantage. They appear to be organised on the basis of self-interest rather than on principle, or service to the public. This insular, self-interested approach is leading to constantly shifting alliances and it appears that parties are incentivised to use the most popular issues and populist measures, which exploit issues of identity as an organising principle of politics, but this principle masks more immediate and narrow accumulative concerns and claims.

More durable alliances and sustainable coalition politics may require a restructuring of political and policy relationships based on the changed and changing social and class structure and the shifts in the social formation in society and when societal interests and claims are channelled on a class ideological basis, rather than an exclusively “race” or identity cleavage, which parties in any event resurface, even latent and residual social antagonisms based on identity cleavages, and allow them to assume political primacy in perpetuating social antagonisms instead of solving and extinguishing them

Societal fault-lines, & social cleavages – race, inequality, unemployment and poverty – are used by parties to justify capricious policy & procedural, process, and ultimately institutional manipulation and debasement that benefits a predatory elite and a seemingly retributive justice, rather than a redistributive or developmental agenda.

This serves to perpetuate the politics of victimhood and vengeance characterised by hysteria, scapegoating, conspiracy and paranoia that allows for institutional and process manipulation, Institutional de-legitimation, destabilisation and debasement and leaving a societal legacy of impunity in the exercise of power and authority, informality in decision making and governance – without accountability and responsiveness and gaping under development and inequality in the economy.

This may engender an institutional crisis of credibility, and if prolonged may raise the spectre of a legitimation crisis at the local level. This may depress voter participation and voter turnout – or alternatively may spur participation to punish incumbents.

Ebrahim Fakir is Director of Programmes at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute and on the SABC panel of election analysts