Ebrahim Fakir | Preserving the integrity of elections in SA - the 2021 municipal elections and beyond

Alet Pretorius

It is critical to note that the integrity of the electoral process cannot be continuously safeguarded, in spite of the excellence of the election administrator and manager, and the electoral process cannot always be isolated from the broader currents of mistrust and distrust in institutions and the dynamics of exclusion and precarity in the economy, writes Ebrahim Fakir

2021 was a momentous year for South African elections, likely one that would be regarded as seminal, as it consolidates the era of "substantive uncertainty" initiated after the 2016 local government elections.

In this era, no political party can take for granted voter allegiance. This is a win for voters. It makes elections the repository of voters and not political parties and politicians.

That elections and the government(s) formed after them are in fact about people rather than parties, appears to be a fact that both the media and political parties appear to forget.

More importantly, though, the 2021 election saw the electorate increasingly disillusioned and disengaged with the state of South Africa's electoral politics generally, and the state of South Africa's democratic governance system in particular - leading a loss of trust and confidence in public institutions. This arguably demonstrates why the rates of participation and voter turnout in the 2021 elections were substantially lower compared to others.

A loss of confidence in public institutions translates into a deterioration in the democratic process and in the accountability and responsiveness required in sustainable democratic governance systems. A continuous decline in trust and confidence of public institutions, leads to a concomitant decline in voter participation and turnout, which consequently results in uneven representation and responsiveness from those in elected office.

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Worryingly, though, a lack of trust in institutions generally, is affecting the IEC, an institution generally enjoying a robust reputation for credibility. In contra-distinction to the period coming into this 2021 local government elections, historically the IEC enjoyed unparalleled high levels of trust and confidence and a superb domestic and international reputation.

The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) consistently received healthy public approval ratings, with majority support from more than two-thirds (60%) of the adult population since 2001 till at least 2016, as shown by both the Human Sciences Research Council's South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation's (IJR) Afrobarometer.

Despite the IEC emerging from the 2021 local government elections with its credibility intact, political parties' assaults on the IEC in order to externalise the cost of their inability to mediate and manage their own internal conflicts, dented the IEC's credibility. Otherwise, parties pre-emptively excuse their poor(er) than expected electoral performance by blaming the IEC of bias and irregularity.

This ought to be of special public concern, since the continued assault on the reputation and credibility of the IEC by political parties drives public sentiment, often without merit.

In a context of generalised declines in public trust of institutions of authority this crisis of credibility feeds doubt and cynicism, making spurious accusations against the IEC seem plausible. In instances where outcomes of an election are disputed, it casts a pall of doubt on the outcome, a mode of behaviour which across the continent has been a precursor to intractable, disruptive and debilitating social and political conflict.

In a country like South Africa, this is exacerbated by heightened political tensions within and between political parties, political violence, targeted political assassinations and the recent insurrectionary impulses and in-fighting on candidate nomination processes within political parties.

Elections, economics, political intimidation and violence

Trends in political violence and intimidation and intolerance appear to have changed over time. In the transition period of negotiations (1990-1994) and early years of democracy (1994-2002) political intolerance and political violence was high, especially that between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

In electoral terms, some parties were unable to campaign in certain areas of the country and the cities in what were called "no-go areas". Inter-party intolerance and violence were acute.

By 2003, this dynamic had changed to increased intra-party intolerance and violence increased especially since competition for access to office within a dominant party (the ANC) increased. As the dominant party became increasingly factionalised, especially as it headed towards its highly contested and tense 2007 elective conference.

As the factionalism inside the dominant ANC led to breakaway parties, intra-party violence and intimidation increased as fear and suspicion stalked internal party processes and usually healthy democratic competition translated into open conflict. The dynamic now changed from intra-party conflict to simultaneous inter and intra party conflict, intimidation and violence.

Though, for a period, political violence was no longer about "political intolerance", per se, but economic competition instead, because political office became an economic and income opportunity, not a public service.  

But as the political dynamic changes - and South Africa emerges from an era of "state capture" and attendant corruption, political party competition intensifies and no party guaranteed to be dominant, it is feared that both inter and party violence, intimidation and conflict will continue to remain a feature. This is compounded by the fact that targeted assassinations of whistleblowers on state corruption, and political rivals alike, become targets of violence and even murder.  

This is compounded by violence that attends protests over service delivery and unaccountable, unresponsive political leaders and poor government performance. On occasion, these spill over into the electoral period and target IEC infrastructure even though the source of disgruntlement may not be related to the electoral competition or the electoral process.     

Violence, intimidation, conflict and crime appear to be embedded in the social and political culture of South African society. Some of it seems subsumed under the generalised levels of criminal and inter personal violence. Frequently, political violence per se, generally occur on the margins of the formal economy.

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While the trend of the 1990s of real political intolerance, no go areas and the like may no longer be a problem and, the IEC's institutional mechanisms such as political party liaison committees have played a role in containing this, violence is increasingly directed to people who pose a threat to access to political office, or the spoils of office.

This can be within the same party, or from rival parties - but it is decidedly related to competition for access to political office as an economic activity/opportunity. While internecine and low intensity - it is continuous and generalised rather then episodic or isolated. As political office is increasingly embedded in economic opportunity - especially given poor economic performance and government dysfunction, violence that takes place in such situations is likely to increase, especially where political contestants occupy precarious or insecure economic positions.

Once political office is so closely intertwined with economic opportunity - the insecurity of political office translates into an issue of economic insecurity.

In such situations, processes such as the multi-party liaison committees may be inadequate and the nature of issues placed before them may need to be re-thought. The multi-party liaison committees may themselves be inadequate as platforms to stem the tide of political violence tied to economic opportunity.  

Clawing back confidence and integrity

Since its establishment, the IEC has built a good reputation for being independent, credible, authoritative and professional, and has been spared the ignominy of state capture, but the 2021 elections saw sustained attempts at undermining its credibility. This became especially apparent when, after the elections, political parties raised spurious objections to how the IEC managed the elections.

Although it was efficient and effective on the whole, there is room for the IEC to strengthen its management and administration of elections. This can be achieved through investing in more advanced logistical and technological infrastructure, conducting more effective recruitment, improving staff training, imposing exit standards, and certification requirements for electoral officials (though these may be onerous, it may be worth investing in, as unstable politics emanating from chaotic elections could have combustive socio-political consequences).

In 2021, the IEC was found lacking in its ability to communicate effectively, which rendered it vulnerable to opportunistic and predatory self-interested parties.

There is also a need for regulatory interventions, such as requiring recounts in all wards (constituencies) where candidates win by small margins of say, less than 50 votes. A more transparent approach to dealing with objections and their resolution and in the process of auditing may be necessary to stem the tide of increasing irregularities and malpractices. 

Appropriate and legitimate complaints about the IEC and its management and administration have to be accurately catalogued and itemised to correct maladministration and irregularity, to ensure fair arbitration of disputes, and effective disciplinary processes, sanction and punishment where instances of illegality or egregious infractions of proper election management and administration arise.

While the IEC remains at the forefront of innovation, its zeal in using untested new technologies and devices leads to unintended consequences. The efficacy of its new voter management devices (VMDs) were untested. These devices need to be stress tested before the next elections, given the complaints of discrepancy between the voter records on the devices and the manual voter registers which led to anomalies and complaints about their functionality while in the field, but which anomalies most egregiously, disenfranchised some voters.

Even though the voters' roll was maintained, remained open for inspection and objection by all interested parties, the problems with the voter management devices meant that there were irregularities reported in relation to registration and the capturing of voter information. Should problems arise, this may disenfranchise potential voters in the future and would be a potential source of concern and conflict, and should be flagged for special attention in the future.

But its most immediate risk lies in future appointments.

While the commission is constitutionally and legally independent, its composition and appointment is safeguarded through legislative and regulatory provision.

This is bolstered by the extensive process of public nomination, but this equally opens loopholes where political pressure is brought to bear on the composition of the commission through the nomination and appointment of nominally and notionally independent, but political party aligned commissioners, who are not merely sympathetic, but enthusiastic supporters of a political party even though not holding any high-profile party office.

They then act as proxies for party interests in the commission. This could in the future compromise the independence of the commission.

With a potential new electoral system on the horizon for the next election, the risk of unpreparedness and potential for precipitating political conflict are high. 

The link between election integrity, institutional credibility and political violence, are not tenuous or fragile and isolated. It is critical to note that the integrity of the electoral process cannot be continuously safeguarded, in spite of the excellence of the election administrator and manager, and the electoral process cannot always be isolated from the broader currents of mistrust and distrust in institutions and the dynamics of exclusion and precarity in the economy. Sooner or later that credibility crisis will call into question the credibility and outcomes of electoral processes. This is a significant future risk.               

In countries with deep conflict, especially triggered by politics and future potential contestation over election outcomes where the political trajectory has been defined by latent and residual social antagonisms based on identity, once socio-economic and political conflicts are exhausted, assaults on independent institutions begin. When there is a threat to power or influence, or opportunities to gain purposeless power, election management bodies, as independent institutions, face direct assault.

- Ebrahim Fakir is Director of Programmes at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute and facilitated the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme)/ Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) pre-election seminar on promoting and preserving the integrity of the 2021 municipal elections during a state of disaster. 

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