Concerns have been raised that the IEC is not fulfulling all of its mandate - such as providing voter education, writes Tebogo Khaas.
In an ideal world, we vote and act based on facts over opinion so that we can accurately make decisions at the ballot box that will benefit our communities and us in the long run.
Sadly, we don't live in a Utopian world, and, often, hyperbole trumps common sense and the idealism espoused in our Constitution.
Let me explain.
It is trite that for an election to be considered successful and democratic, voters must understand their rights and responsibilities, and be able to exercise these freely.
The United Nations edifies us that in "every election, voter and civic education are necessary to ensure that all constituents — men and women alike — understand their rights, their political system, the contests they are being asked to decide, and how and where to vote."
Since its inception, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has performed exceptionally well by all metrics. It is held in high esteem globally for its integrity and for having delivered credible elections since the dawn of our democratic order.
Nevertheless, there is growing concern that the IEC could be dropping the ball in certain critical aspects of its mandate.
Section 5(k) of the Independent Electoral Act, which sets out the IEC's powers, duties, and functions, enjoins the electoral body to "promote voter education". The term voter education is generally used to describe the dissemination of information and includes programmes designed to inform voters about the specifics and mechanics of the election process.
Voter education is essential for, inter alia, providing information on who is eligible to vote; where and how to register; how voters can check the voters' roll to ensure that they have been duly registered; the type of election being contested; and reinforcing the essence of universal suffrage.
However, the solemnness and importance of suffrage is often minimised.
Some voters believe that abstaining from voting during an election is the best way to respond to political alienation and exact "punishment" to their preferred choice. They do this with a misguided assumption that their preferred political party will be less likely to win, or their service delivery gripes ameliorated if they abstain.
The folly of the "No-Show Paradox" phenomenon is unlikely to help effectively help a voter's wishes prevail, nor would it guarantee improvements in accountability by political parties.
There are many ways to protest via the ballot. Protest votes could be rendered by casting blank ballots, spoiled ballots, or filling in words like "none of the above parties" on the ballot paper. Unlike abstentions, protest votes enhance participatory democracy and ensure that the culture of voting is maintained.
Admittedly, many voters would consider the opportunity cost of casting a protest vote not worth the trouble of visiting a polling booth, hence the abstention.
Millions of poor voters who depend on social grants are prone to being misled to believe that social relief programs are tied with the fortunes of a governing party. They are made to fear that these benefits would be discontinued if they vote for different political parties. This is habitually propagated by mischievous politicians and political parties who prey on voters' political ignorance.
I was astounded recently when ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe invoked Sassa grants as being on the line, ostensibly, were voters to abandon his party. That the IEC allows such outright disinformation to be disseminated is profoundly concerning and merely shows a lack of effective voter education. In any event, what do social grants have to do with local government elections?
Promotion of nonviolence
Meanwhile, one would be forgiven for thinking that we are in the throes of a general election. What with all the massive presidential and ministerial blue-light motorcades crisscrossing the hinterland, shacks and township dwellings countrywide, while imperviously navigating open sewers, potholes, grime and abject poverty. With its president's credibility dwarfing his fellow comrades, it is unsurprising that ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa features prominently in the party's local government elections campaigns. Though expedient for the ANC, this practice deprives communities of an opportunity to engage their potential future local representatives with whom social contracts on service delivery ought to be concluded.
Voter education has also been used to promote nonviolence in the election process.
It can also have an important impact on election integrity and could help ameliorate intraparty violence that often raise its head within the ANC during election cycles. The above undercut the IEC's efficacy in promoting voter education as mandated. Political parties and civil society also have a moral duty to help promote voter education.
Voter education is most effective when linked with a civic education programme and offered in our education system and through other alternative platforms. Civic education is also a critical cog in suffrage. It is primarily targeted at promoting the participation of an informed and responsible citizenry in a participatory democracy.
Voters need to understand their rights and responsibilities under their Constitution and election law so that they can fulfil their obligations in an informed manner. Ideally, civic education should be built into our educational system so that when the youth reach voting age, they would be better equipped to understand the basis of our political and electoral systems.
Recall of public officials
Competent and responsible participation in democratic processes must be based upon moral deliberation, knowledge and reflective inquiry. A glaring omission in our constitutional order seems to be an inability for voters to demand a recall of their public representatives in the event there arises cause for such. Disgruntled voters are doomed to wait for the next local government election cycle as by-elections are circumscribed for specific conditions which exclude voter dissatisfaction, especially when poor service delivery is experienced. This could be another contributory factor to violent service delivery protests.
Recalls can serve as a critical valve to release pent up voter frustrations and discontent. Crucially, more needs to be done to edify communities of inherent responsibilities that accompany suffrage. It cannot be that members of society stand idly by when public infrastructure is damaged during service delivery protests. In fact, many turn a blind eye when neighbours make illegal electricity and water connections, affecting systems and utility availability for those who pay their dues.
Civic and voter education should not be treated as mere events only to be conducted during election cycles.
Sustained investments in advocacy for these crucial elements will surely stand efforts at moral regeneration in good stead, especially if conducted in a politically agnostic manner.
The IEC has undoubtedly made significant strides at embracing digital communication tools essential to enhancing its abilities to reach communities and advance voter education. However, the advent of misinformation and disinformation on social media demands constant refinement and a more proactive approach to amplify its messaging.
Yes, voting is ultimately deciding based on one's specific opinions or bias, and oftentimes, people have preconceived opinions about certain topics and issues in which they only pay attention to how they as an individual will be affected. This local government election cycle is no different. Voter and civic education should remain a constant feature and cornerstone of our political discourse and engagements.
- Tebogo Khaas is an independent political and social commentator.
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