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Practising what you preach — IEC CEO’s vast elections experience aligned with matters of faith

Practising what you preach — IEC CEO’s vast elections experience aligned with matters of faith
Chief Electoral Officer Sy Mamabolo. Novemebr 2021. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The boss of South Africa’s election process takes his role in the IEC very seriously, as he does his Catholic faith. 

“Bringing fairness, transparency and honesty to the elections through the presence of God.”

This is the aim of the Independent Electoral Commission’s chief electoral officer (CEO), Sy Mamabolo, who is a devout Catholic and a deacon in the church.

In this position, he is second-in-charge to an ordained priest and can conduct almost all duties that the priest can perform. Permanent deacons in the church can be married and may have families.

Mamabolo grew up in a devout Catholic family in Lady Selbourne, Pretoria, where he attended mass every Sunday with his family.

However, as he grew older, his interest in religion waned as he became deeply involved in student politics and the youth struggles in the 1980s, soon taking on leadership positions, culminating with his election to the Student Representative Council of Wits in 1993. He says it was this community involvement that inspired his commitment to transformation and social justice in his later years.

It was only when Mamabolo wanted to get married in the Catholic church that his religious awareness resurfaced. He was made to attend marriage preparation classes with his wife and his faith “was reawakened”.

Sy Mamabolo

Sy Mamabolo at the launch of the Voter Registration Weekend For South Africans Citizens Living Abroad at Election House in Centurion, South Africa. 25 January 2024. (Photo: Gallo Images/Frennie Shivambu)

SA elections veteran

Mamabolo has a long history in election preparation. He was appointed chief electoral officer in October 2017. He had years of experience in electoral administration for almost 20 years before his current appointment. He is a veteran of eight elections since 1994, the year of the country’s first democratic elections.

Prior to his present role, the CEO served in many capacities including strategic leadership roles involving, amongst others, strategic civic and business programmes. He also headed legislative amendments in Parliament for the past two general elections.

Mamabolo has extensive experience in research and public administration. He studied politics and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts and a Master’s Degree in Management, both from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), received in 1995 and 2002 respectively.

“It was only when I attended marriage preparation classes there that I was re-evangelised. I felt a renewed strength in the church and my wife converted to Catholicism. We have not turned back since,” he said.

He became an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, undergoing training through Bishop Peter Holiday at the parish of Our Lady of Assumption, Maryvale.

He then decided to study for the diaconate. He underwent two years of training with the Society of Jesus (Jesuit) priests for two years. This was followed by another two years of practical pastoral training by the Deaconate Board, before he was able to start acting as a deacon.

Read more in Daly Maverick: 2024 elections hub

Archbishop Buti Tlagale, head of the Catholic Archdiocese of Johannesburg, accepted his candidacy and he was ordained in 2018, serving at the Maryvale parish for six years.

When the date of the elections was announced, Mamabolo asked the Archbishop for special leave to take care of his duties. When he returns after the elections, Mamabolo will be assigned to the Church of the Resurrection, Bryanston.

During the run-up to the elections, Mamabolo has attended many religious services with other denominations.

People are very surprised to hear about his strong involvement with the Catholic church.

“I don’t think many people know about my devotion, but it is always welcomed and people want to engage me about it. They feel I am bringing the presence of God into the elections.”

Hope and helping hands

Mamabolo paid tribute to the role of women, especially to the religious sisters and nuns in the Catholic Church.

“They have played an immense role and have had a huge impact on thousands of people through their missionary teachings and setting up of schools and hospitals. They definitely helped to build up the church as we know it today.”

As part of his duties, Mambolo delivers homilies at mass, so during his spare time, he does a lot of reading, especially Catholic writings and commentaries, to improve his knowledge.

“I take this duty of delivering homilies seriously. Every liturgy can be looked at from several different angles and I try to explore them all. I believe homilies bind together broken hearts and heal deep wounds, so they have to be carefully constructed and prepared. They should give congregants a recipe for things to consider during the week ahead.”

Mamabolo remains in regular touch with the South African Catholic Bishops Conference, the overall umbrella body of the church, communicating often, and keeping bishops updated on election preparations.

He has sincere hopes for the party that wins.

“Hopefully, whoever wins will implement public policies to recognise the full human potential and development of all people. This starts by taking them out of poverty to affirm their dignity, getting an education and jobs so they fend for themselves. Poverty eradication and gender respect are other important aspects which must be foremost of any party.

“I am proud to be a Catholic and to be able to bring God into this vitally important civic role,” he concluded. DM


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