South Africa

ELECTIONS

The 2021 municipal poll pushes on regardless of Covid-19, says IEC

The 2021 municipal poll pushes on regardless of Covid-19, says IEC
January 2021 marks the start of the recruitment and training of 58,000 electoral staff for voter registration events, and 207,000 for voting day. (Photo: EPA / Kim Ludbrook)

MPs’ questions on the latest governance nostrum – holding local, provincial and national elections at the same time – were batted back by the Electoral Commission of South Africa on Tuesday. That’s because the decision is up to MPs as law- and policymakers.

As things stand, the 2021 local government elections must be held between 4 August 2021 and 1 November 2021. Those are the outermost dates of the permissible time-frame of 90 days either side of the last municipal elections.

But ANC and EFF MPs asked about combining all elections for all three spheres of government when the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) on Tuesday 14 July briefed the parliamentary home affairs committee.

And what about postponing the 2021 municipal elections because of Covid-19? asked EFF MP Mgcini Tshwaku, because door-to-door campaigning was “necessary mass work”, but made difficult by physical distancing.

As the IEC maintained it is planning for local government to go ahead in 2021, MPs did not get simple answers on combining local, provincial and national elections to take back to political party HQ.

“The question [of combining elections]… is first and foremost a policy decision. In other words, a decision that’s your decision… It’s not a decision the IEC itself would be in a position to take,” said IEC vice-chairperson Janet Love.

And if MPs made the policy decision on combining elections, it’s still not a cure-all.

“The issue is that once you have taken the policy decision, you will have to align the time-frames of national, provincial and local elections. And that’s something that again will involve policy debates,” said Love.

“You are elected until 2024. If you elect local government next year for a five-year term, it will not coincide. The idea that you can extend the term of local government up until the next general elections, extend it to 2024, or to shorten your own term to 2021, it is something quite difficult… If you do it once the election is done, you potentially run foul of the Constitution.”

But also important is the June 2020 Constitutional Court ruling that the Electoral Act needed to be amended by Parliament over the next two years to allow independent candidates to stand in provincial and national elections. Policy debate and decisions were needed rather than just inserting “independent candidates” in various sections, according to parliamentary legal advisers.

In mid-June, according to City Press, the ANC and EFF agreed on synchronising all elections and that the 2021 local government elections needed to be postponed.

EFF Secretary-General Marshall Dlamini was quoted in City Press as saying: “This pandemic has made it clear to us that we don’t need to have more than one election. We are calling for a postponement of the local government elections to 2024 and it must be made permanent. We will make submissions to Parliament regarding this.”

Covid-19 may be the spoke in the electoral wheel, particularly if South Africa’s lockdown, among the hardest and longest worldwide, continues to restrict gatherings and movement.

The governing ANC more recently was somewhat more circumspect with its words.

The 1 July statement issued after its 27-28 June National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting talked of “synchronising” local, provincial and national elections.

Saying the Covid-19 pandemic had disrupted preparations, requiring adaptation, “The NEC supports the initiative by officials and the NWC [National Working Committee], to engage in the development of proposals on a synchronised national, provincial and local government elections to enable better coordination and implementation of policies across spheres of government.”

The pandemic, and the Constitutional Court judgment “have given impetus to society-wide engagements on broader electoral reforms, which will have an important impact on our political system for the decades to come”.

Or, as ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule put it during the televised briefing question session:

“If the Covid conditions continue, we will be directed by the IEC. We will be directed by the courts whether it is possible to postpone because of conditions of Covid.

“We are calling for a single election: a synchronised election by all spheres of government.”

Regardless of the governing ANC’s indication of a wholesale electoral system review – with or without the EFF –  it will be crunch time to meet the Constitutional Court’s 24-month deadline to June 2022.

Other changes to the Electoral Act are in the making:

  • To ensure those wanting to cast their ballots even though they are not on the voters roll can do so, but in a different dispensation; and
  • To ensure the voters roll personal data protection is in line with the now fully operational Protection of Personal Information Act.

The IEC deputy chief executive of electoral operations, Masego Sheburi, told MPs the commission was looking at, for example, only releasing the first six digits of an ID number “to protect from instances of identity theft”. And to be done away completely is the possibility of obtaining the right to at least a section of the voters roll – up to now it contains full names, ID numbers, and addresses – after paying a fee.

January 2021 marks the start of the recruitment and training of 58,000 electoral staff for voter registration events and 207,000 for voting day.

Other Electoral Act changes independent of the Constitutional Court judgment are more technical, including the period over which the electoral code of conduct applies and what documentation candidates would have to submit.

Sheburi said this amendment bill had been finalised and was being certified by the state law advisers. “It will soon begin the parliamentary process.”

But it first has to go to Cabinet for approval. And that can take time.

However, the 2021 local government elections are not affected by such legislative amendments as they take place under the Local Government Municipal Electoral Act.

Covid-19 may be the spoke in the electoral wheel, particularly if South Africa’s lockdown, among the hardest and longest worldwide, continues to restrict gatherings and movement.

“The best we can do is to continue to prepare… so we are ready to meet changing conditions,” said IEC chairperson Glen Mashinini.

And so procurement is under way for new “voter management devices” to replace the obsolete zip-zips. These new machines would not only read a voter’s personal particulars, but also participation, and in doing so prevent double, or even triple voting.

In August, tenders for voting station materials, and for personal protective equipment (PPE), will be put out so that all material should be in place by April or May 2021.

By mid-December all required voter registration equipment should be in place.

January 2021 marks the start of the recruitment and training of 58,000 electoral staff for voter registration events and 207,000 for voting day.

But that’s the easy stuff. The policy debates, the legislative changes – and potential constitutional changes – that’s up to policymakers and lawmakers.

If MPs were looking for easy answers from the IEC on Tuesday, they were disappointed. Legislators will just have to roll up their sleeves. DM

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