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Candidates for IEC grilled on their suitability for policing ‘difficult’ 2024 elections

Candidates for IEC grilled on their suitability for policing ‘difficult’ 2024 elections
From left: Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. (Photo: Lubabalo Lesolle / Gallo Images) | Acting Public Protector Kholeka Gcaleka. (Photo: Lubabalo Lesolle / Gallo Images) | Gender Commission chairperson Nthabiseng Sepanya-Mogale. (Photo: Lubabalo Lesolle / Gallo Images) | South African Human Rights Commission chairperson Bongani Majola. (Photo: Lubabalo Lesolle / Gallo Images)

The Independent Electoral Commission selection panel, chaired by Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, warned candidates that being a commissioner was not a ‘side hustle’ and asked them tough questions about their understanding of the latest legal and technological developments that would affect elections.

Candidates lobbying for a position on the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) faced tough questions on Tuesday about their integrity, understanding of democracy and the work of the IEC.

They also faced questions about time management from Gender Commission chairperson, advocate Nthabiseng Sepanya-Mogale, who was among the panellists conducting the interviews.

She noted several times that the IEC was entering a “possible difficult period” owing to the introduction of independent candidates, and was concerned about whether the candidates would treat the job as a “side hustle” as many had legal practices or existing jobs. 

The panel, which is chaired by Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, asked all candidates about their experience and how it related to the IEC. While most had a legal background, only two candidates had direct experience working for the IEC: Janet Love, who was a commissioner until earlier this year, and advocate Geraldine Chaplog-Louw.

Another candidate, Hanif Vally, spoke about his experience as an election observer for the Commonwealth.

Acting Public Protector advocate Kholeka Gcaleka and Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission Bongani Majola were also part of the panel.

Experience vs new energy 

The interviewing panel grappled with the new energy required on the commission ahead of the 2024 poll, which is expected to be a watershed election for South Africa, and the need for commissioners with relevant experience. 

Next year will be the first time that independent candidates are included in a national and provincial election, which will not only increase the number of names on the ballot, but will also require a new method for calculating seats and changes to electoral legislation. Candidates were asked about their understanding of the legal battles that led to this change in process and how it would affect the working of the IEC.

Love, who served as a commissioner from 2016 until April 2023, said she believed management of the 2024 election would require experience.

“I believe that we are moving to a period where the need to know how elections are managed and dealt with and the need to have election expertise across the range of the functions is absolutely critical.

“I do believe that the 2024 elections are going to be the most difficult elections that we’ve had to deal with. And I think the expertise and the experience that I bring to bear, I think that the determination and hard work ethic and the independence, are really things that can contribute to that in a way that is positive,” she said.

Chaplog-Louw, who has worked within the IEC secretariat for 25 years, also spoke about her experience in the organisation. She said she had worked in the IEC’s internal audit unit. While that often put her in conflict with other staff, it also showed her commitment to integrity.

“Sometimes people felt you were not part of the organisation; you were worse than the Auditor-General,” she said.

She also spoke about the need for the IEC to be independent.

“The Constitution says that Chapter 9 institutions are independent. They stand apart from the government, they answer to Parliament. They make their own decisions. Upholding that independence is very important for our democracy.

“The more you assert your independence and not sway to influence, that helps to foster respect for the electoral commission and builds trust,” she said.

Despite her experience, Chaplog-Louw was quizzed extensively on apparent disparities in the timeframes for her law degrees. The commission asked her to submit a letter from her university explaining when she completed her courses.

Another candidate who had experience in the electoral arena was Hanif Vally, who spoke of his experience as an election observer while at the Human Rights Unit of the Commonwealth Secretariat. He said he visited several countries as part of election observer missions, including Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka.

He said he had noticed some questionable practices in some elections, but was limited in what he could do about it.

 “You can’t interfere in the election. You put it in the report that you give to the heads of mission. You have to be circumspect and respect the people whose country you are in,” he said.

Vally also spoke about the need for voter education from a young age. He said the formation of “democracy clubs” in schools could start voter education early.

“I would focus on young people. I would focus on people who we are training to run elections to impart the knowledge on [to] young people,” he said.

‘Not a side hustle’ 

Many of the candidates have existing jobs or are serving on boards, and panellists were concerned about whether they would have enough time for the role. The IEC Act does allow for the appointment of part-time commissioners, but Sepanya-Mogale noted that in this case, a full-time candidate might be more suitable.

She questioned Preetha Dabideen about who would take over her legal practice if she were to be selected as commissioner, as it would mean a seven-year commitment to the job.

“Some of the institutions of the state and of government, especially governance roles, suffer because people take it as a side hustle and never ever go into the running of the organisation. And when things fall apart they never know what happened and resign because they have been more of cheque collectors than actually agents of change and agents of assuring good governance,” Sepanya-Mogale said. 

Dabideen said this would not be a problem as she has various support staff who would keep her practice going if she were appointed.

Technological advancements

Many of the candidates said that if they were appointed, they would prioritise technological advancements in the IEC. Lumko Mtimde, who previously worked in the Presidency and was chairperson of the Media Diversity and Development Agency, said his experience in the ICT sector would stand him in good stead at the commission.

“We need to make sure that the systems give that trust. Technology does create that environment as long as you understand that it must also be protected from interceptors, because it does get intercepted as well,” he said.

Professor Setlhomamaru Dintwe, who is the former Inspector General of Intelligence, also noted the need for digital innovation at the IEC. He added that the IEC needed to be prepared for cyberattacks and internal and external technological threats to its operations.

Budget cuts

My Vote Counts, which observed the interviews throughout the day, said it was surprising that candidates were not asked more about the IEC’s funding constraints. Sheilan Clarke, head of communications at the organisation, said only one candidate had touched on the issue. 

“The IEC’s budget keeps getting cut. In the 2021 mid-term budget, their budget was cut by R800-million. This year their budget was cut by R240-million. These are big cuts and this really signals a possibility of underfunding our democracy,” she said.

The budget cuts were made against the backdrop of increasing responsibilities for the IEC.

Judge Zondo said the panel would deliberate on the outcome and announce the successful candidate in due course. DM


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