The IEC needs to reinvent itself if it’s going to keep up with the times

IEC tape around a voting station.
IEC tape around a voting station.

The recently concluded 2019 South African polls were the sixth democratic elections in South Africa since the fall of apartheid and the sixth time the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) was tasked with managing the process.

There was increased competition for the voters’ approval in this election with a mirage of issues threatening to reduce each party’s percentage at the poll. The breaking point was the issue of appropriation of land without compensation.

The governing ANC party was facing innumerable problems that included, the alleged mismanagement of state-owned enterprises particularly Eskom, the ongoing state capture investigations and the crippling effects of perceived corruption and looting of the state coffers.

The DA, on the other hand, was dealing with an identity crisis, the challenge to grow its support base beyond the white constituency in addition to the leadership struggles, and the EFF was trying to come to grips with its alliance with a party which is largely seen as anti-land appropriation, which was the EFF’s main campaign point.

Certain sections of society were also unhappy with the EFF’s radical immigration and border security issues in which they insisted that Africa was one big continent. In prevailing tough economic environment, where is there is rampant unemployment, this stance didn’t stand them in good stead with the youths, facing jobless prospects and arguing that they are not getting jobs which they allege are taken by foreigners.

To add to all this, the confidence and trust the general public had in the election management body (the IEC) was also under the integrity threat for a number of reasons.

Low voter registration and youth apathy towards the electoral process

Following the apathy of 2014 voting process, the voter registration numbers were at an all-time low and most concerning was a large proportion of the 9.8 million eligible voters not registered to vote being the youth. In fact, figures had plummeted from 86.9% to their lowest since the advent of democracy in 1994 to 74%. It is worth highlighting that it is not that young people are not interested in politics, but their lack of participation in mainstream national politics that is worrying.

Recent years have seen student representative elections being hotly contested and movements like “Fees Must Fall” have really gained momentum, but this has failed to translate into the increase of voting numbers in National elections.

Increased number of political parties

Despite the voter apathy and growing size of the population losing faith in the political parties, this election saw a massive increase in the number of political parties contesting elections.

There were 48 political parties, a record 19 more than in the 2014 national and provincial elections. This can be attributed to a more fractured political environment and a desire for break-away factions to woo voters who are disenchanted with the main political parties.

This increase placed logistical challenges on the IEC that come with redesigning and printing of the ballot papers and procurement of extra ballot boxes.

In addition, the law allows each political party contesting an election to have two party agents per voting station. Accommodating two agents of each of the 48 potential contesting parties per station was a nightmare in the making.

The completely new administration at the IEC and complying with the 2016 Tlokwe ruling

The terms of three IEC commissioners had came to an end in 2018 and these mandated new appointments just months before the 2019 election. The new commissioners started their term just months to the election. There was apprehension about the competence of the new administration, considering they have never been at the helm of any election.

Additionally, the 2016 constitutional ruling on the Tlokwe municipality, commonly referred to as the Tlokwe ruling was also a game-changer. The constitutional court mandated the IEC to fix the voters’ roll before the national elections to ensure that all registered voters had valid addresses, failing which the voters’ roll would be declared invalid. In the Tlokwe municipality by-election, independent candidates challenged the fairness of the election when they found out that voters registered in the wrong district had managed to vote in different districts, potentially swaying the votes to a particular candidate.

It presented a logistical nightmare for the IEC considering a large proportion of South Africans still live in informal settlements that do not have recognised physical addresses.

As a result, a drive to encourage South Africans to register their addresses was conducted but the IEC reported that they could only manage to register 75% of the voters’ addresses. Understandably so, the IEC could not meet the deadline and it applied for an extension, which was granted.

These challenges were bound to have an impact on the election on 8th May

The IEC was inundated with complaints about the irregularities and complaints about the voting process which in essence would have compromised the integrity of the vote. Key among these objections was double voting due to malfunctioning scanners and ease of removal of the indelible ink.

Zip-Zip machines are ID scanning devices used to register voter during registration and on voting day, they are used to confirm if an individual appears on the voters roll before they are given a ballot paper.

The IEC had, in the run-up to the election, intimated that the zip-zip machines would be linked to a central national database which would then make it easy to confirm if a voter has already voted elsewhere. This however did not happen as the machines are outdated and had not been upgraded by election day.

COPE, the EFF and the DA laid a formal complaint to the IEC that the machine produced slips, often more than once for the same voter at the same voting station and could have easily produced more at different voting stations. Though a few arrests were made, IEC chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo announced that there was no evidence found against those who were arrested for double voting and to have affected the general outcome.

The indelible ink was reported to be easy to remove from the thumb, and together with the claims of double scanning, this would potentially allow voters to vote more than once. The EFF even demonstrated how the indelible ink used by the IEC was easy to remove from the thumb using domestos toilet cleaning liquid.

The provision to vote at any voting station provided one is a registered voter compounded this challenge as voters could remove the ink and proceed to another station and cast another vote.

The IEC made provisions for the form 24 A for registering home addresses on election day, but most stations had run out of these by afternoon. In some stations, some voters were not even given these papers to fill out.

Some areas in rural KwaZulu Natal reported shortage of ballot papers and failure to get all voting stations up and running on election day. In addition, footage emerged of some lone polling officials transporting ballot material unaccompanied and without security. UDM, one of the smaller parties also alleged that in Limpopo and Eastern Cape, names of deceased parties were used to cast votes. Marry all these with the hyperbole of a compromised voting process and the calls about electoral fraud were beginning to sound credible.

Election observation

In the midst of all these, there is definitely the voice of the observers. The declaration of principles of 2005 describes election observation as the “impartial and professional” analysis of systematically gathered information on the conduct of an election”.

In its broadest sense, election observation is designed to boost confidence in the fairness of the electoral process, to help deter fraud in the balloting and counting procedures, and to report to the country’s citizens and the international community on the overall integrity of the elections. Several international organisations observed the 2019 election in South Africa including the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, the African Union, and the South African Development Community. In their preliminary report of their findings, all three organisations endorsed the process and the conduct of the election and concluded that the 2019 national and provincial elections in South Africa were conducted in an orderly and professional manner and within the requirements of the legal framework of the Republic of South Africa. None of these missions expressly mentioned that in the areas they had observers witnessed the alleged fraud that was being touted by smaller parties.

The shortage of ballot papers that was witnessed in a minority of voting stations would have disenfranchised some individuals, but this was immediately fixed. If indeed there was double voting as alleged, then the voter numbers would have been higher than votes that were recorded. The EISA EOM particularly pointed out that “in comparison to the voter turnout recorded in 2014 of 73.48 %, there was no unusual increase in voter turnout in the 2019 election” and this essentially voids these allegations.


As the institution mandated to safeguard South Africa’s democracy, the IEC headed to the 2019 election with mammoth challenges and aspersions but managed to take these in stride. The institution conceded that indeed there were flaws in their ink marking system and ID scanning machines, but these minor glitches were not sufficient to warrant major shifts in voting patterns and influence the final election result.

To improve youth participation in the electoral process, the IEC, political parties and civil society need to go back to the drawing board and assess the possible causes of voter apathy and redesign its civic education.

To eradicate the double voting challenges in future elections, the IEC can restrict voters to the stations they registered. This will allow for proper planning and eliminate the potential of running out of ballot papers. If the IEC will allow voters to vote at any polling station, then the zip-zip machines need to be upgraded so that it can centrally, remove from the roll any person who has already voted.

As a credible institution, the IEC proved that indeed it is capable of delivering credible elections. To keep with the upward trajectory, the institution needs to continue upping its game and reinvent itself to meet the needs of an ever-demanding populace and changing of times.

• Lenny Taabu Chimhavi is an observer with Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa

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July 2020

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