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Managing elections: context and challenges

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Long queues of people outside an IEC voting station Endlovini Informal settlement in Khayelitsha. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / Independent Newspapers / Taken May 29, 2024

By Michael Sutcliffe and Sue Bannister

Although the 2024 national and provincial election process has yet to be concluded, it appears to be a watershed in the development of our democracy.

In drafting our Constitution, we agreed that first, every citizen has the right to free, fair and regular elections. In this regard, we must stand proud that we are about to conclude our 12th democratic election, for all spheres of government, each held regularly and, to date, all declared to be free and fair. This election has extended to national and provincial elections the right for independents to stand for elections, a right that has existed in the past five local elections.

Second, our Constitution requires that we establish an electoral system which must result, in general, in proportional representation. In drafting the principle, we knew that this was the fairest approach in ensuring that each vote would meaningfully record our diversity and differences in ways that our representatives are not just from parties who may have been first past the post, with the remaining runners having no say in our legislative and executive matters.

All political parties knew in the 1990s, in drafting the principle, that this was best for our country and would certainly result in legislatures being elected where there was no majority party. Indeed, this has happened in all local elections since 2000, and in some of our provincial legislatures but has never happened in the case of the national legislatures (National Assembly and National Council of Provinces). At the time of writing, the situation will change, creating a new reality for national elections.

Third, our Constitution required an Electoral Commission to run the elections and it must be independent, subject only to the Constitution and law, impartial and must function without fear, favour or prejudice. This is easier said than done and because we are a democracy, we must be proud of what they have achieved for reasons covered below.

Managing elections as proportionality kicks in with increased contestation is not for the faint-hearted. Today, such management is particularly challenging as social media takes over our lives and we have to increase our vigilance to distinguish between truth and fiction.

The sheer scale of what the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) manages is huge and should be appreciated. And over the voting period this week, there were a wide variety of challenges which had to be addressed by the IEC, the SAPS and other parties:

  • A few voting stations opened late but almost all had opened by 9am.
  • Insufficient measures were available for persons living with disabilities.
  • Non-functional Voter Management Devices (scanners), largely due to internet challenges. The IEC ensured that manual scans were used in such cases.
  • A few presiding officers not wanting to use the manual scan or change the queueing system. These were addressed through provincial/national IEC intervention.
  • Some voting stations had a shortage of voting material (ballot boxes and materials) as the day progressed where, in a few cases, area managers were slow to respond.
  • Some voters did not appear on the voters roll even when they had updated their details.
  • Security incidents have resulted in 98 cases being registered with more than 50 arrests having been made by the SAPS.
  • Long queues in some stations particularly, in the early morning and late evening, but the IEC gave the assurance that anyone in the queue at 9pm was not turned away.
  • A few instances of voters being blocked at the gate by other parties refusing them access. This also included a few cases where the SAPS stopped voters wearing party regalia but these were addressed as voters are entitled to wear party regalia.
  • Some cases where electricity went off.
  • Spending an inordinate amount of time with manipulated videos on social media, wrong information or information which was not contextualised being disseminated even by the media, analysts and so on.

There were two issues that existed before but which took a specific form in these elections: voters who wanted to vote outside their registered voting station and had not applied for the Section 24A applications. A further issue was long queues and delays in processing voters, a matter which will require the IEC to provide specific evidence on where these were and what the root causes were.

To a large extent, though, the specific challenges seemed to result from legislative changes made first, to address the need to accommodate independent candidates and second, to address the need to ensure all voters are registered with an address.

In previous elections, independents could not stand and there were apparently instances where persons voted more than once. This resulted in legislation that required each voter to receive three ballots, to accommodate independent candidates who were contesting a seat in the region for one of the 200 regional National Assembly seats.

More importantly, though, the challenge of long queues was primarily found in voting district (VDs) that had large numbers of registered voters. Our observations across eThekwini and in discussions with colleagues in places like Johannesburg and Buffalo City, was that these were particularly found in inner city and higher educational precincts.

To explain this, we must note that colonialism and apartheid have had a huge impact not only historically on the geography of human settlements. Post-1994, there remain significant movements of people reversing the apartheid reality. The IEC must ensure every voter in South Africa has an opportunity to vote and, therefore, it has had to configure an arrangement of VDs that mirror the reality.

While we do not have the space to provide such evidence, some of examples include:

  • The 26.7 million voters are unevenly spread across the nine provinces, with the largest province in South Africa in area being Northern Cape with only 2.7% of the voters and the smallest province in area being Gauteng having the largest number of voters, at 23.6 percent.
  • There are 72 VDs that have 6,000 voters comprising just under 500,000 voters, while there are 6,828 VDs with fewer than 500 voters comprising more than two million voters.
  • Johannesburg has 865 VDs, each covering an average area of 2km², with on average 2,674 voters per VD.
  • Hantam, on the other hand, in the Northern Cape has only 23 VDs. The average size of each of the VDs is almost 1 700km², with on average 611 registered voters per VD.

This is the reality of our country and so the scale of what the IEC has to do to manage its constitutionally required functions cannot be underestimated.

We must remain proud, though, that we are one of the relatively few countries that has an independent electoral commission which has dealt with a myriad issues, including court actions, complaints and challenges. Fortunately, it must operate transparently, allowing for a wide range of parties and interests to have their say and be responded to.

Michael Sutcliffe and Sue Bannister are directors at City Insight