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ROAD TO 2024 ELECTIONS

Explainer: How the IEC will fight disinformation and keep errant parties in line during polls

Explainer: How the IEC will fight disinformation and keep errant parties in line during polls
South African Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) workers hang a banner outside a polling station prior to opening for general elections in Masiphumelele, Cape Town, South Africa, 08 May 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

The 2024 elections are set to be the most contested in recent history, with scores of political parties and independent candidates setting their sights on governing South Africa. So it is imperative that the elections are protected from misbehaviour by political parties and disinformation.

The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) has concluded its official voter registration weekends and is moving full steam ahead with planning for the highly anticipated national and provincial elections.

Chief among the IEC’s responsibilities is ensuring that the elections are free and fair, which includes safeguarding against disinformation and making sure political parties toe the line while campaigning for the hearts and minds of South Africans. 

Political party conduct

In the build-up to the final registration weekend, former president Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) party made headlines after a religious leader and alleged MK party leader openly threatened the IEC at a rally in KwaZulu-Natal.

TimesLIVE reported that the pastor, Vader Maluleke, took the stage and vowed to “shut South Africa down for good” and reject the election results if the IEC does not give Zuma’s new party a two-thirds majority.

Similarly, the newly appointed leader of MK Party Youth League, Bonginkosi Khanyile, led a small protest outside the IEC’s head offices in Centurion, Tshwane, on 2 February, declaring “no Zuma, no elections”.

This comes after the commission declared that Zuma was not eligible to contest for the position of president because he had already served two terms and had previously been convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail time.

The Patriotic Alliance (PA) also came under fire from the DA for alleged incidents of intimidation during the final voter registration weekend.

DA MP Werner Horn accused members of the PA of carrying automatic weapons at a voting station in Eerste River, Cape Town.

The DA said it had reported these incidents to the provincial IEC offices and was waiting for the commission to take action against those involved.

Another political party whose conduct has come under intense scrutiny is the newly registered Operation Dudula, which is set to contest the election on an anti-immigrant ticket.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections 2024 Knowledge Base

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

Since its inception as an organisation in 2012, Operation Dudula has embarked on a crusade to remove foreigners from schools in Diepsloot; unlawfully evict residents from an allegedly illegally occupied building in Jeppe, Johannesburg; harassed workers and patients believed to be foreigners at a hospital in Tshwane; and clashed with police while targeting foreign traders in Hillbrow and Orange Grove. 

Operation Dudula’s registration as a political party raised the eyebrows of several civil society organisations, which argued that the fledgling party’s track record contravenes the IEC’s code of conduct in that it engaged in “prohibited conduct which involves using language which provokes violence”.

In a Daily Maverick article, Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia’s Sharon Ekambaram called on the IEC to rescind Operation Dudula’s registration, claiming: “The IEC has powers to enforce the Electoral Code of Conduct which is aimed at promoting conditions that are conducive to free and fair elections and that create a climate of tolerance, free political campaigning and open public debate.” 

There have been a number of calls for the IEC to act against parties that contravene the code.

The code, which the IEC is charged with enforcing, was drafted to promote “conditions that are conducive to free and fair elections” and that create a climate of tolerance, free political campaigning and open public debate.

Acts prohibited by the Electoral Act include:

  • Using language which provokes violence;
  • Intimidation of candidates or voters;
  • Publishing false information about other candidates or parties;
  • Plagiarising any other party’s symbols, name or acronyms;
  • Offering any inducement or reward to a person to vote for a party;
  • Destroying, removing or defacing posters of other parties;
  • Carrying arms or weapons at political meetings, marches or rallies;
  • Bribing voters to vote or not vote; and
  • Generally abusing a position of power, privilege or influence to influence the outcome of an election.

If a political party or independent candidate breaks the code of conduct, they can be fined up to R200,000, ordered to give up the party’s election deposit, stopped from working in an area, have their votes in an area cancelled or have their party registration cancelled.

Any person who breaches the code can also be sentenced to up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

The code is only enforceable once the election date is announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

On Wednesday, 7 February, Presidency spokesperson Vincent Magwenya said Ramaphosa would announce the date before the end of the month. 

How it works

Daily Maverick sat down with deputy chief electoral commissioner Masego Sheburi who explained the ins and outs of the code.

Explaining why it is only enforceable during a specific period, Sheburi said: “The code of conduct in its very nature has the impact of limiting rights. Right of freedom of speech and those types of things. In the lawmaking process, a conscious decision was taken to say we don’t want such important rights in perpetuity.”

If the code were broken outside the election period, recourse could still be sought by individuals and aggrieved organisations through common and statutory law, where an application could be made for defamation or criminal injury.

From its inception, Sheburi said, the commission has tried to avoid a combative relationship, especially with political parties. Its first course of action was always to engage with party leaders before referring an issue to the Electoral Court.

Threat of disinformation

Recognising disinformation as an emerging threat to free and fair elections, the IEC has partnered with Media Monitoring Africa to use the organisation Real411 platform to govern and engage with disinformation during the election period.

“Instances of disinformation can be reported. They will be evaluated by a committee, and if found that the complaint is a meritorious complaint so far as the matter relates to disinformation, a number of actions may be taken,” chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo said at an earlier media briefing.

The consequences of disseminating disinformation included requesting the social media platform to take down the post, and depending on the gravity of the disinformation, a warning could also be issued.

Spreading disinformation and misinformation about the elections was prohibited by the Electoral Act, and those who do this could be tried in the Electoral Court once a relevant investigation had been completed. Punishment included imprisonment of between five and 10 years. 

Mamabolo warned that once the Electoral Code of Conduct comes into force, acts of disinformation can be escalated to the Electoral Court, but this only relates to independent candidates and political parties.

“Candidates may be removed, and a political party may be barred from participating in the election if it can be proved that perpetration of the alleged disinformation is at the insistence of that party.” 

Mamabolo called on all role players, including party supporters and leaders, to exercise restraint and be careful when making statements.

“Don’t take a public platform and poison the atmosphere in which the election is going to be taking place. That is anti-democratic and is not in the best interest of a democratic society such as ours,” Mamabolo said. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Citizen X says:

    “Vader Maluleke, took the stage and vowed to “shut South Africa down for good” and reject the election results if the IEC does not give Zuma’s new party a two-thirds majority”
    This statement should be paid very serious attention by our intelligence agencies, let us not forget July riots!!! Sounds reminiscent and dors not require the Electoral Act to be acted on, already a threat to our security! Time Cyril and his Police and Intelligence deoartments steps up to deal with these individuals.

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