Election Watch

Can technological miracle save municipal elections?

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Unless the Independent Electoral Commission and Department of Home Affairs can pull off a technological near miracle, South Africa could be heading for another constitutional crisis regarding the municipal elections scheduled for 3 August.

While most of the political attention is monopolised by the constitutional problems surrounding President Jacob Zuma and the so-called ‘Nkandla judgement’ of the Constitutional Court (CC) and by parties launching nationwide municipal election campaigns, another pending CC judgement is casting a long, dark shadow over the proclaimed municipal election date. 

The Constitutional Court is scheduled to deliver its “clarification judgement” over the prickly issue of verifiable addresses for all voters on the voters roll on 9 May. It is an issue that has already seen the results of municipal elections in the Tlokwe municipality nullified and a number of others indefinitely postponed.

Scope of problem

The scope of the problem is huge and nationwide, but particularly intense in rural areas, due to the magnitude of South Africans who live in informal settlements where formal addresses in the conventional sense of the word do not exist.

Only last month the Deputy Minister of Cooperative Governance, Andries Nel, told a parliamentary joint committee that it would not be possible for the IEC or government to have addresses for all 26.2 million registered voters within two months, the cut-off time for the voters roll for a 3 August election.

According to Nel, two-thirds of the voters did not have addresses. Director general in the department, Vusi Madonsela, said they had taken measures to address the situation after the court case by independent candidates in Tlokwe, North West.

The department has roped in Statistics South Africa and the South African Post Office (Sapo) to find a solution to the problem of people living in informal settlements, rural areas and backyard dwellers with no addresses.

In Tlokwe they assigned a unique number, based on geographic coordinates, to every dwelling unit in the area, which would be allocated to people with no physical addresses.

“We asked Stats SA and Sapo to assign an identifier, a unique number linked to the head of the dwelling unit. We call these ‘identifiers’ because the numbers will be used for purposes of these elections and the government can use them for its planning. The plan is to roll that out on a national scale,” Madonsela said.

For this process to be rolled out over two months for more than 17 million people across the country would, however, requires a near miracle.

Basis of the problem

In his briefing to the parliamentary committee, Mr Nel attempted to put the blame of the problem on the court, saying the court decision to force the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) to have addresses of voters in the voters roll could jeopardise the local government elections.

But if someone is to blame, it is parliament itself and those responsible for the compilation of the voters roll for not devising ways to deal with the address problem over the past more than a decade and a half.

A 2003 amendment to the Electoral Act stipulates addresses on the voters roll, which should be provided to political parties under Section 16(3). And, in local government elections, the Constitutional Court in November 2015 (the Tlokwe case) found that residential details are key because some councillors are elected to represent wards. This means that there is a direct connection between residents’ interests and where they live.

The conundrum now is that in terms of the constitution the election has to take place within 90 days after the expiry of the current terms of office of councillors, which is 16 August.

What’s to do?

At a media briefing last week IEC vice-chairperson Terry Tselane said there has never been any intention to delay the elections and he is confident the IEC will be able to resolve all challenges.

At the same occasion Cooperative Governance & Traditional Affairs Minister Desmond van Rooyen said he is confident the magic will happen before the constitutional cut-off date.

This sounds like a bout of denialism against the background of what Deputy Minister Nel had to say less than a month ago.

Hopefully, somewhere, some responsible people are engaged in some contingency planning.

If compromises are made on the requirement of verifiable addresses for voters it could pose serious risks to the integrity of the election. It will leave ward votersv rolls open to manipulation – the complaint of independent candidates in Tlokwe. It could therefore lead to a proliferation of the Tlokwe-type court cases post-3 August.

A small amendment to the constitution to provide for the postponement of municipal elections under well defined “special circumstance” or a one-off postponement or sunset clause to go with it, could do the trick.

And as we suggested before, it might also, if postponed to at least the second part of May next year, create the possibility of an early national general election. That would not only synchronise election terms at all levels of government, put also create an opportunity to deal with political dilemmas associated with the position President Jacob Zuma finds himself and government in.

by Steve Whiteman

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