Electoral Court braces for a busy time

Many electoral disputes may need to be resolved during next year’s general election, as the number of registered political parties has almost quadrupled since the last poll.

Tasked with settling any disputes as quickly as possible is the country’s Electoral Court, headed by Justice Khayelihle Mthiyane.

“There will be just as many disputes, if not more, for the election,” he said, speaking at an election workshop held recently on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast.

With less than eight months to go before voters go to the polls, Mthiyane said the court is ready and waiting, and he is confident that matters will be dealt with “expeditiously”.

Mawethu Mosery, KwaZulu-Natal’s provincial election officer, said there are 146 registered political parties in South Africa at present. During the 2004 election there were a mere 37 parties.

“People are registering their political parties at a high rate, but it’s fine because South Africa has a multiparty system,” he said.

“We don’t mind as long as each party complies with the requirements,” said Mosery.

Pam Kambela, of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa), said it is “relatively” easy to start a political party.

“A person can start a party by just having the signatures of 50 registered voters,” she said. The party would also have to pay a deposit of about R500.

Mthiyane said he believes that even though the case load may be heavier in 2009, the court will not have a problem with backlogs.

The Electoral Court sits only before, during and after elections, and each case has to be resolved within three days.

The Electoral Court consists of only five staff members, of whom three are women.

They are Judge Thumba Pillay of the Durban High Court, Judge Thokozile Masipa of the Johannesburg High Court, and two attorneys, Susan Abro and Saloshna Moodley. Mthiyane is the fifth member of the team.

The court deals with election disputes as a last resort, if political parties are unable to reach a resolution themselves.

In the last election, Mthiyane said, most cases dealt with political parties making allegations against each other. In some instances, an individual from a party had in the past brought a case against their own party for being excluded from the party voting list.

“We hear matters that relate to the interpretation of any law referred by the electoral commission, allegations of misconduct or incompetence, as well as issues relating to rules or regulations being breached.”

On the functioning of the court, Mthiyane said it differs from other courts in that individuals or parties can state their own case and d not need a lawyer.

The judge pointed out that the court, situated in Bloemfontein, has no territorial restriction and can move from province to province to deal with cases.

“If something is taking place in KwaZulu-Natal, we will send our members there to deal with the case. We determine our own practice and procedures and make our own rules,” he said.

The court also operates as an appeals court. To open a case, one has to fill out an application to the judge president.

Since its inception in 1996, Mthiyane said, there has only been one instance where an Electoral Court decision was overturned by the Constitutional Court.—Sapa

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