This week Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke threaded the proverbial needle, balancing the rights to health and life with the right to vote and participate in our democracy. He did so with surgical precision after an exhaustive process, delivering his report on local government elections a day early.
The outcome is the recommendation to delay the this year’s local government elections from October 27 until the end of February. In the current environment where South Africans are burying their loved ones and piecing together the ruins of what used to be their businesses, should we care?
I believe that we should care more now than ever before, and here is why.
Let us start with the fact that our rights to health, life and to vote in regular elections are all guaranteed in our Constitution. While situations do arise where rights have to be balanced and weighed, we must examine any situation that requires a choice between two guaranteed rights.
So what has caused this?
Firstly, we are a country that is insufficiently vaccinated for an election campaign. As of Thursday, 5.4% of our population had been fully vaccinated. We know that for the required “community immunity” we need 67% of our adult population to be vaccinated.
Consider the irony of this situation for just one moment.
The government that has mismanaged the handling of this pandemic, that has caused economic devastation and the loss of lives through banning innocuous items in our lives rather than securing vaccines, now delays its own accountability.
Perhaps less publicly known, but of equal importance, are the failures of the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) as the constitutional authority on elections in South Africa. Despite more than 100 countries holding national elections last year, many of them successfully from a health perspective, deep in Moseneke’s report was a public opinion poll which reported that 61% of South Africans wanted the elections to be postponed.
If there was ever a vote of no confidence in the IEC’s ability to provide leadership, it is this. Confidence to be able to vote is a function of how people feel about the measures proposed to keep them safe and the volume with which such measures are communicated.
The truth is that the IEC has been led by political parties with vested interests, rather than leading in the manner envisioned by our Constitution. It is not being unfair to suggest that the IEC should have produced a best-practice model of elections for South Africa, built from analysing what has worked well around the world and what has not, and put that on the table. That model needed to be communicated across the length and breadth of South Africa to ensure that public confidence in the safety of the elections was high. None of this happened.
So what is four months going to change? Without trying to be argumentative, the answer is “everything”.
For many communities, these elections have been a long time coming. Municipalities such as Emfuleni in Gauteng and Msunduzi Pietermaritzburg have been under administration longer than most residents can remember.
We have communities in South Africa where sewage flows through the streets. We have communities that don’t know what rolling blackouts are because they have never had electricity. We have communities that have gone to court to win the right to provide services for themselves in the absence of their municipalities being able to. We have communities that go to sleep knowing they are led by criminals.
Countries such as South Korea, with better track records in holding their elected representatives to account, have held elections in the middle of wars. Why did the South Koreans deem it so important to limit the term of office of politicians that they would literally queue to vote while mortar shells were landing around them?
The answer lies in the idea of preventing the day when the government could do whatever it liked with impunity; when it could arrogantly loot public money, fail to notice major unrest brewing, prioritise Cubans over unemployed South Africans or constantly put the party before the country. Sound familiar? It should.
The reality, universally recognised across the political spectrum, is that we have an accountability crisis. Politicians – and not just the ANC – can do just about anything they want without being held accountable. For many South Africans, who only see their elected representatives every five years when their support becomes a commodity again, regular elections are the only way of forcing a semblance of accountability.
Moseneke produced a report that favoured life over voting, and nobody should blame him for that under the circumstances. However, make no mistake, people are dying every day from the politics of our country through crime, unemployment, disease, gender-based violence and poverty.
The answer has to lie in South Africans – who are gatvol of being gatvol – getting off the bench and into the game. You need to register to vote and fire politicians who have failed us, with the promise that those who replace them will suffer the same fate if they also fail us.
Beaumont is an ActionSA national chairperson