Will the local government election be free and fair?

2016-06-28 10:11
(Karabo Ngoepe, News24)

Johannesburg – There have been indications that South Africa will experience some of the worst violence in its 22 years of democracy during this year’s local government elections. 

Winter of electoral discontent

For one, the elections are being held very late because of a court challenge questioning the legitimacy of the voters’ roll. August 3 is already towards the outer limit allowed for by the Constitution. It is also mid-winter, and bad weather makes for bad turnout, especially if voters are already half-hearted and disillusioned.

In some places voters have already indicated they will stay at home rather than vote for the ANC, or any other party. Bad turnout is bad for credibility. If elections are supposed to reflect the will of the people, the outcome would be more credible if people turn up to vote.

Address the issue

Even if people do vote, the Constitutional Court has declared the voters’ roll invalid, but will turn a blind eye for two years. The court said on June 14 that the IEC failed to record voters’ addresses properly but should update these by June 30, 2018.

Still, the integrity of the voters’ roll is one of the factors high up the list for free and fair elections. Some parties might latch onto this point – defiantly or even violently – should there be hints of anyone having fraudulently registered in the wrong ward. The Tlokwe municipality, where the court challenge originated, is a particularly hotly-contested ward. You can see Tlokwe's voting history here.

Over the weekend, the IEC partially opened its voter registration process in the Tlokwe/Ventersdorp municipality to allow registered voters a final opportunity to provide their addresses for the elections.

Jobs for pals?

Glen Mashinini’s appointment as IEC head last year – following the resignation of Pansy Tlakula in 2014 over a botched leasing deal – raised questions about the organisation’s independence. Mashinini is a former deputy chief electoral officer and former special projects advisor for President Jacob Zuma. Opposition parties have questioned his impartiality, given his closeness to Zuma.

So far however, Mashinini has done nothing that led to his independence being questioned.

Tlakula’s resignation cast somewhat of a shadow over the electoral body. She fought for about a year to clear her name after Public Protector Thuli Madonsela found she flouted procurement regulations in securing a R320 million lease deal for the IEC’s Centurion head office.

Despite maintaining her innocence, the allegations of impropriety damaged Tlakula’s reputation and the IEC’s image.

Free to report

Compared to the rest of the region, South Africa’s media is free of censorship and pretty fair in its reporting of political parties, Media Monitoring Africa’s William Bird said.

The one snag could be the SABC. The broadcaster recently saw journalists being suspended or resigning following COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s instruction not to show violent protests or allow outside commentators and newspaper journalists onto shows.

Bird said previously the SABC had been fair in covering parties. This time, there have been two key shifts at the public broadcaster.

“Before, journalists at the SABC continued to do their own thing, no matter what was publicly said (by Motsoeneng). That now seems to be shifting dramatically.”

Outside broadcasts are only allowed in functional municipalities, and reporters are not allowed to express their views on Facebook and Twitter.

“It is different from any of our previous democratic elections, so a very worrying trend is emerging. If that is allowed to continue, what you see is people no longer taking what the SABC is saying seriously.”

We did start the fire

Over the weekend, City Press published the contents of a state intelligence report warning that the violence in Tshwane last week, following the announcement of Thoko Didiza as ANC candidate for mayor, could increase towards the elections and pose a threat to them.

Jakkie Cilliers, of the Institute for Security Studies, said the nature of the violence could change from fights among ANC members to ANC-EFF violence. He predicted in a recent report that violence around the elections could be the worst in the country since 1994.

He did not believe such violence could as yet influence how free or fair the elections were, but once the IEC’s independence is under question, then it could.

“When I listen to Julius Malema's speeches, I’m beginning to worry about populist rhetoric,” he said.

Besides threats of occupying land, Malema had warned the IEC not to rig elections. He alleged it had done so in 2014, in places like Alexandra, Johannesburg. Despite this, the EFF never lodged a formal complaint.

Cilliers said the best way to deal with violence was “real communication” with people and dealing with rumours.

He said crowds are angered by rumours, such as that Didiza is alien to Tshwane, although she has lived there for two decades, or that the job-creating Expanded Public Works Programme will be stopped.

Tshwane remained under ANC control in the 2011 elections with its majority slipping just 0.86% from 2006 to 56.46%. Explore voting shifts across the country with our interactive maps. 

The IEC said last week it noted “with grave concern” increasing violence and intimidation in provinces like Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, and North West.

It condemned behaviour which contravened the Electoral Code of Conduct and undermined free and fair elections.

Freedom of association and the freedom of parties to hold rallies and not be intimidated is important, although so far there have not been any major complaints about such intimidation.

Free and fair or not?

Measuring whether elections are free and fair is not just a simple tick-box exercise, but rather about context.

Head of the political parties programme at the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, Ebrahim Fakir, said “like a Facebook status for relationships, these indicators are complicated”.

“There has been a shift in tonality of pronouncements of an electoral outcome, from ‘free and fair’ to ‘credible process and legitimate outcome’, towards one which says ‘does the process allow for the free expression of voters’ choices?’”

Phephelaphi Dube, of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, said violence might affect the credibility of the elections. There is however still reason to be positive.

“The IEC has a very good track record managing the electoral process itself,” she said.

Political parties should manage their internal affairs so it did not spill over into the kind of violence seen in Tshwane.

“The deciding factor is really what happens on election day, and that has a lot to do with how the IEC conducts itself, whether it shows bias, how the ballot boxes are managed, how counting is done, and allegations of irregularity handled,” she said.

There are “definite questions” over how the process has been handled so far, and boundaries are consistently being tested.

- Find everything you need to know about the 2016 Local Government Elections at our News24 Elections site, including the latest news and detailed, interactive maps for how South Africa has voted over the past 3 elections, or download the app for iOS and Android.

Read more on: iec  |  local elections 2016