In the 2014 national elections, around 25 million South Africans (of a 31,4 million voting age population) registered to vote, while around 18 million South Africans turned out to vote. As long as we continue to ignore the systemic and structural issues, we will encounter 14 million South Africans electing to either not vote as well as not registering to vote.
There are no immediate solutions to our societal problems, but South Africans need to take the important steps of looking at the structural and systemic issues that have made so many South Africans feel powerless within our electoral system. The first issue and focus of this week’s column is around the need for civic education, and the second is around the secretive nature of party political funding in South Africa.
It being an election year, our attention will go to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and the work that it has to undertake in order to ensure that the local government elections are free and fair. Last year, the IEC was in the news as the Constitutional Court was considering electoral issues that had transpired in Tlokwe, North West. Acting Justice, Malcolm Wallis, penned a unanimous decision on behalf of the Constitutional Court which questioned the way in which the IEC operated, but also questioned its credibility. Seven wards in the Tlokwe municipality will hold by-elections on 24 February 2016.
The last time the IEC was this newsworthy was in the lead up to the 2014 national elections, and again questions were asked as to whether the IEC could deliver on its mandate. Perception is an important requirement in a free and democratic country, and people were right to be alarmed when they saw stories circulating about the IEC chairperson, Advocate Pansy Tlakula, being linked to a botched lease deal and a Public Protector report. Eventually, South Africa saw the resignation of Advocate Tlakula in September 2014 and the appointment by President Zuma of Glenton Vuma Mashinini, who is widely perceived as an ally and long-time supporter to Mr Zuma.
It is unfortunate that our attention is drawn to the symptoms of failure and dysfunction. As long as we ignore the root causes of a system that allows politicians to hold all the power in the political game, we will forever be trapped in a state of purgatory an frustration. The mandate of the IEC is provided for in terms of section 181 of the Constitution, where the IEC is one of the institutions that were established in order to strengthen our constitutional democracy.
An essential issue, as we look for solutions in South Africa, is to assess critically whether the IEC is fulfilling its mandate to strengthen our constitutional democracy. Running free and fair elections within prescribed periods are necessary, but they do not substantively deal with the robust work that is actually required in order to strengthen our constitutional democracy. The IEC’s Electoral Operations division is mandated to facilitate the participation of voters in regular, free and fair elections, using sustainable systems and processes while the Outreach division is required to inform and educate the public on electoral democracy, with a view to strengthening participation in electoral processes. Twenty-two years into democracy, with 14 million South Africans not voting, the question we should all ask is whether we, and the IEC, are doing enough to strengthen our democracy?
The work of civic education is crucial in a South Africa, where millions were marginalised and degraded by a repressive apartheid regime, in order to ensure that all South Africans are able to participate in elections where they feel able to make a decision, without fear, favour or prejudice. The IEC must do far more work, and should be enabled to do so through the necessary financial allocation and support from citizens, in order to provide citizens with the necessary information to understand not only why their vote matters, but why their vote is not linked to the social grant system or the housing lists. The IEC will only be able to fulfil its constitutional mandate if it does more work through its Electoral and Outreach divisions to ensure that South Africans are truly empowered to exercise their fundamental right.
There is a window of opportunity here for South Africans to start getting involved by volunteering their time and services to the IEC to ensure that throughout the year, and not just in election cycles or when a by-election is scheduled, that we are all working to strengthening our democracy. A great deal more focus and vigilance will be required to ensure that the IEC, under the leadership of Mashinini, recalibrates and does a lot more groundwork to ensure that the vital civic empowerment and education reaches the people who need it most. DM