SA’s democracy tested under coronavirus pandemic as IEC holds its 6th LGE

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The outbreak of the coronavirus has not only caused havoc in the lives and livelihoods of people around the world, but it has also tested our country’s democracy.

For the first time in the history of South Africa’s democratic dispensation, elections were held during a pandemic. Although the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) faced several challenges in holding the sixth edition of the municipal elections, they were declared free and fair.

An election year like no other. The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the country’s economy and the health sector. The Independent Electoral Commission was also not spared. The Commission postponed by-elections due to the third wave and restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.

It then tasked former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke to investigate if free and fair elections could take place under COVID-19 conditions on the 27th of October, the date originally set for the local government polls to take place. Moseneke’s inquiry was also motivated by the fact that various political parties differed on the issue of the postponement of elections and an independent probe was necessary to assess the situation.

“To this end, it is my intention by Monday 24 May to establish an office to facilitate this process. This office will reach out to key stakeholders within the electoral sphere to urgently submit reports on their views regarding the various factors. These will include political parties; Health authorities and Experts; Disaster Management authorities; other Electoral stakeholders” says Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke.

After soliciting over 4 000 submissions by health experts, political parties and the public, Moseneke recommended that the October polls be postponed. The IEC accepted and adopted his report and approached the Constitutional Court on an urgent basis to have the elections postponed to the 28th of February 2022.

“The Electoral Commission has carefully considered and resolved to adopt the final report of the inquiry into ensuring free and fair elections during COVID-19 by former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke. The commission accepts the rationale and the central thesis of the report that greater immunity through mass vaccination is a desirable precondition for a safe, free and fair election to be realized,” says IEC Chairperson Glen Mashinini.

Twelve political parties and NGOs made their arguments in the Apex court either in support or in opposition to the IEC’s bid. Legal counsel representing the Electoral Commission laid out its arguments and wanted the court to declare that holding elections beyond the five-year expiry term of municipal councils is constitutional. Lobby groups such as Freedom Under Law, the South African Institute of Race Relations and AfriForum argued that the IEC’s application is inconsistent with Section 159 of the Constitution. The ConCourt later handed down an order, declaring that elections must take place no later than the 1st of November.

Over 26 million voters 

On the 20th of September, the new election date was gazetted and a voter registration weekend took place on the 18th and 19th of the same month. Over 26 million people were on the voters’ roll. The Candidate Nomination System was re-opened, giving parties like the ANC, UDM and PAC amongst others, a chance to submit outstanding candidate lists.

Over 1.1 million people applied for Special votes – which took place over the last week of October. However, there were a few glitches, eight voting stations could not open in Camperdown, KwaZulu-Natal, due to a dispute over traditional leadership and a presiding officer in Mpumalanga was dismissed after he was found to be under the influence of alcohol.

IEC’s work in the build-up to 2021 Local Government Elections: 

On Election Day, most of the over 23 000 voting stations opened on time except for a few isolated cases in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, where 19 voting stations did not open because of community protests.

“A presiding officer in the eThekwini metro was arrested after allegedly stuffing marked ballots into a ballot box. The matter is now in the hands of the South African Police. This incident, which did not affect voting, is a testament to the in-built safeguards in the voting process that also include an active role for party and independent candidate agents.” Mashinini explains.

Challenges were also experienced with Voter Management Devices or VMDs, which were used for the first time. The VMDs replaced the ZIP ZIP machines and were blamed for slowing down the voting process and failing to reflect all eligible voters. However, the IEC rejected these claims.

“The VMDs were a mainstay equipment for these elections, they’ve given us capabilities that we did not have…a very fundamental check and balance and control measure in the electoral process, the VMD is the future, all we need to do is fix the glitches we’ve had and sharpen training, we can’t go back,” IEC Chief Electoral Officer, Sy Mamabolo explains.

A low voter turnout was recorded with only 12.3 million people across the over four-thousand wards having cast their ballot. The Commission also made an error on the ballot paper when they put the wrong name next to The Change Party’s logo. But after a marathon of meetings and the IEC apologizing for the mistake – all was resolved.

Despite the challenges of holding the elections in under 90 days, the Covid-19 pandemic, bad weather and power interruptions due to load shedding, the 2021 local government elections were declared free and fair.

“The fact that we are here today, having delivered these elections is an achievement we should all be proud of as a nation. Our thriving, vibrant and maturing democracy has indeed withstood the test thrown at it…it is my singular honour to stand before you and announce the results of these elections which are determined in terms of section 64 (1) (b) of the Municipal Electoral Act,” Mashinini explains.

The Commission received and cleared 290 objections after investigations and deliberations. There’s no doubt that the pandemic presented unprecedented circumstances for the electoral commission. The IEC has conceded that these local government elections have been a steep learning curve for it but despite the challenges faced, they managed to deliver quality elections.