South Africa

IEC credibility: Endangered, must save from extinction

By Stephen Grootes 19 September 2013

Elections are about credibility. Without it, they are nothing: a useless waste of time, speech, and money. With it, they determine a nation's future, how we're feeling about things, whether we have hope, and if we have a future. That the Independent Electoral Commission is in stormy weather is not in doubt. What matters is how they get out of it. Is it just a rough patch, or is it the start of a hurricane? And is the butterfly that started the turmoil flapping its wings in Tlokwe? By STEPHEN GROOTES.

You may remember that last month the chair of the IEC, Pansy Tlakula, was found by the Public Protector to be “guilty of maladministration” in relation to a tender. For this writer, the words “Pansy Tlakula” and “tender scandal” do not normally go together. But that’s where we are right now. This means that the next test facing the IEC was always going to be very, very important.

Normally, by-elections pass us by. It’s only if Paul Berkowitz tells us that something important is happening that we notice. Otherwise we simply ignore them. They’re small and there are literally dozens of wards that change hands every year – so what? But Tlokwe, as we all know by now, is different. It’s not that the DA was able to take the council from the ANC, through internal problems. That’s fascinating, and fun for us in the commentariat to write about. The real story was that in this case, we had people who used to be ANC councillors now standing as independents.

In other words, we had the ANC rebels versus the ANC, in an area where there was going to be a real, genuine contestation. No shouting about race here, no screaming that this one’s mother was blonder than the other’s. Nope, this was proper politics, incumbency versus people who know the community.

In a tough contest, as Bismarck du Plessis will happily tell you, it is important to have a good, tough, referee. Without that, everything fails. It all falls apart.

So when five of the independent candidates went to the Electoral Court, it was not just their political futures that were on the line. It was the entire credibility of the IEC.

Already, things were not looking good. Another candidate had claimed he had been removed from the list of candidates, when he had 53 nominations, three above the 50 he needed. When a second IEC official looked at his paperwork, it was found that he was right. By agreement, the by-election in that ward was postponed. But the other five went ahead with their legal challenge on Tuesday.

This meant that on Tuesday morning, the IEC argued in court that these elections should go ahead and there was no problem. But on Monday, it had already placed an official in Tlokwe on “precautionary suspension”.

So there’s no way it could claim that it didn’t know there was a problem. It was clear that something was up. And presumably that decision to suspend that official weighed heavily on the mind of the Electoral Court judge when he agreed to postpone the five by-elections.

Under normal circumstances, should this have happened, you would have had immediate public action by the IEC’s chair. The soothing voice of Tlakula would have been on the airwaves almost immediately, explaining what went wrong, and what would be done to ensure it didn’t happen again. But this time, it was not the case. She, of course, cannot do public interviews right now.

This means that the case has to go the second tier. Mosotho Moepya is a name not known to most political reporters, never mind most South Africans. But he is the relatively new CEO of the IEC. This also comes with that rather grand, and fundamentally important, title of “Chief Electoral Officer”. In other words, his desk is where the buck stops. On Wednesday, he appeared on the Midday Report to explain himself.

In a case where your credibility is going to be tested, it’s very important for someone in Moepya’s position not to sound like a politician. You have to be above that. Which, as anyone involved in spin will tell you, is bloody hard. Moepya succeeded in that: he didn’t deny, and he impressed listeners with how seriously he took this situation. His problem, though, is that he is unknown, and while clearly he wants to fix the current issue, he hasn’t yet got the public’s trust. It takes time to earn that, and in a perfect world, he would have been guided through 2014 by Tlakula, who, of course, is an old hand at this. So he’s on his own, and he suddenly has to deal with a crisis not of his making – in Tlokwe, of all places.

One of the problems here is that this situation was created for the IEC primarily because of the high levels of contestation in this area. It’s not every by-election that sees ministers handing out food parcels and houses just before polling starts. But quite frankly, if the system breaks down here, we really are well and truly stuffed. Because this is nothing compared to what the entire country could be like in 2019 if the ANC fears it could go below 55%. And that’s the prospect that really stares the IEC in the face.

The other point is one about our entire society. To take a broad view, up until now it’s always seemed that while various institutions have started to fail, there were some that were sacrosanct. First came the Scorpions, used by Mbeki… then the police, Jackie Selebi and Bheki Cele… then there were the courts… well, the JSC is a complex organisation… but there was always the IEC, right? Well, maybe it was just too much to ask that it would stay clean forever, in an environment which has become tougher and tougher. It just simply couldn’t stand the strain. And so it’s become like the rest of us.

But we shouldn’t give up hope yet. We need to give Moepya a chance. He needs to clean up, and clean up good, and in public. To be blunt, a couple of sackings in the Tlokwe office would not go amiss. And the person in charge of the North West, at the very least, needs to get all ducks in a row, and then hold a press conference and be interrogated on what went wrong. We need to know who was responsible, and what was in it for them. And we need to see the back of them, as they leave the IEC.

If that doesn’t happen, if people start to disbelieve election results, well, they will take things into their own hands. And that is a prospect too ghastly to contemplate. DM

Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He’s been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

Photo by Reuters.


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