The 2019 national elections will provide the sternest test yet for the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) as opposition parties vie to take even more power from the governing ANC.
The ANC itself will be under close scrutiny from rivals worried that the party could try to manipulate the election results.
The IEC’s new CEO, Simon Mamabolo (46), admits that the organisation’s credibility hinges on these elections, which are expected to cost taxpayers about R1.3bn.
He reveals that, despite the constrained fiscus, Treasury has already approved an estimated R720m for the election processes and another R600m for the two voter registration weekends.
The former deputy electoral officer, who has 18 years of experience in various roles at the IEC, has hit the ground running since taking over from Mosotho Moepya at the beginning of this month.
This week, the IEC started a nationwide “harvesting campaign”, through which it urges the country’s 26m registered voters to update or confirm their addresses on its website.
The IEC has until June 2018 to complete this process, but needs another R180m to do so.
Mamabolo grew up in Tembisa, Ekurhuleni, and proudly calls himself a township boy at heart. His career at the IEC began with the post of deputy director of party liaison in Gauteng.
“We must consolidate our credibility,” he tells City Press this week in the comfort of his old office, as he talks about his vision for the next five years.
As the head of administration, Mamabolo says his main responsibility is to make sure every IEC official has the ability to withstand any pressure that politicians might try to exert in their quest for control and power.
The former student activist at Wits University says this is the last thing he expects from political parties in the first place.
“In my 18 years in the IEC, no political party has asked for special favours from us. Despite the fact that the 2019 election will be hotly contested, we believe all political parties will behave in a manner that is consistent with the principles of the Constitution and that no one will bring any pressure to bear on any official of the IEC,” he said.
With just over a year before the country heads to the polls, Mambolo is worried.
“I’m anxious about helping the institution put in place processes that are beyond reproach and plans that can withstand the difficulties that might arise in that environment,” he says.
“It is only when we do things in a manner that is without blemish that we will be able to respond to the environment.”
So what does 2019 mean for him?
“A hotly contested election where the professionalism of our electoral staff is going to be called into question, where the scrutiny into our processes, both manual and electronic, will be more stringent than ever,” he says.
The last local government elections revealed tensions between the ANC and IEC officials.
A post results gala dinner on August 6 last year turned sour when ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and his deputy Jessie Duarte allegedly accused IEC vice-chairperson Terry Tselane of being an “enemy”, in the presence of President Jacob Zuma.
That matter, revealed by City Press at the time, was managed through meetings with the ANC after Tselane complained to IEC chairperson Glen Mashinini.
The ANC was angry with the IEC for its decision to drastically reduce the number of teachers – most of them members of the ANC-aligned SA Democratic Teachers’ Union – who were used as electoral officers during election time.
“I think it was unfortunate,” Mamabolo said.
“On both sides we have learnt that when emotions run high it’s best to allow situations to calm down.
“But what is important is that despite all those unfortunate occurrences, there was never an attempt to try and change the results of an election, because the will of the people is recorded in the results,” said the Catholic, who is very active in his parish in Johannesburg.
He said the IEC would talk to all its stakeholders to ensure there was no repeat of such a situation.
The ANC tried to make an issue of the fact that one of the IT companies the commission used had Israeli ties. This was despite the fact that the company had worked with the electoral body since 1997.
There is fear within the IEC that the governing party wants a less independent IEC as its electoral fortunes decline, and it could use an IT tender to infiltrate the commission.
Mamabolo poured cold water over concerns that such a tender could land up being awarded to groups who could use it to manipulate election results.
The IEC would have to outsource some of its work. This included finding an IT company in time for the 2019 vote as the incumbent’s three year contract had expired.
“Part of my first responsibility is to engage with those stakeholders who are raising these alarms about the IT tender so that we can take them through the conditions of our IT environment.”
He sought to allay fears of vote-rigging. The organisation’s processes were transparent and political parties were able to keep an eye on vote counting, he said.
“The possibility of anyone manipulating the outcome of these elections through the IT infrastructure is basically nil.
“You count at a voting station, you have the results at the voting station. All parties are there and they know that results are.
"That aggregates to the municipality, that aggregates to a province and so every political party can check the correctness of the results.”
The fact that political parties could access scanned results slips from voting stations and compare these with data captured on the IEC’s system would allow for any discrepancies to be picked up.
Last year, DA leader Mmusi Maimane knew Tshwane’s voting results before the IEC announced them, which Mamabolo said was one example of the IEC’s transparency.
“If they already knew the results and we tried to manipulate them somewhere in a black hole, it would create a crisis.”