For nearly 20 years, South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has been among the very few public institutions to keep going without blemish. It has had no unseemly leadership squabbles; unlike some ministries, it has not been subjected to claims that it was unable to fulfil its mandate. Throughout that time, the IEC demonstrated its integrity and delivered results with credibility, whether in local, provincial or national elections.
Disputes have arisen over elections in the past, but they have been about lack of fairness in funding, unequal media or television coverage, or issues of violence and intimidation – hardly ever has there been a serious dispute about the accuracy of the results of elections as delivered by the IEC.
It is a rare privilege to have a completely trusted and uncontroversial electoral body on a continent where, far too often, such entities are seen as being either much too close to ruling parties or largely ineffective – often they have been undermined by the very governments that depend on the credibility of electoral results and that claim to be unimpeachably democratic.
South Africa can be grateful for the great work the IEC has done over the past two decades.
For all these reasons, our instinct has been to frown on anyone trying to "politicise" the IEC – it should never become a political football between electoral rivals, either within the ruling party or between the ruling party and opposition groups.
Our still fledgling democracy would be seriously compromised if the credibility of its prime electoral body and the veracity of its election results were to become questionable. That way lies Zimbabwe.
It is concerning, then, that the IEC is now in the news for the wrong reasons. Two recent instances of trouble to do with the body should make us pause to reflect.
This past week, the Electoral Court found that a local electoral officer in Tlokwe unfairly excluded independent candidates from contesting a by-election there.
Tlokwe is already a highly disputed municipality, mired in various forms of intra-ANC conflict, and has been prominent in the news of late, so you would have thought that electoral officials in such a place would tread especially carefully.
The excluded candidates were people who had left the ANC, amid backbiting and bitterness on both sides, and decided to stand in the by-election as independents.
There is no clarity yet on what the precise motives were for their exclusion (the court recommended that the IEC investigate fully), but it can only have raised suspicions of bias and ruling-party skulduggery for the candidates to find that they were not able to stand for election because they allegedly had not provided the list of 50 registered voters who would support their candidacy, as required by law.
At least one of those excluded candidates was able to show that he had well over the 50 names required.
To its credit, the IEC has distanced itself from the Tlokwe official's actions and suspended him. It has in effect cast him as one bad apple. We hope this is the case.
At the same time, the IEC is in the news for another reason: public protector Thuli Madonsela has made a finding of conflict of interest on the part of IEC chairperson Pansy Tlakula's handling of a R320-million leasing deal. A parliamentary committee is deliberating on these findings, but Tlakula has disputed Madonsela's conclusions and said she "did not benefit from any financial transaction".
She is determined to challenge the ruling, saying that if Madonsela's findings, which she deems incorrect, are left unchallenged, the integrity of the IEC will be damaged.
Like any citizen, Tlakula is entitled to justice under the rule of law and of the presumption of innocence until a court of law has determined otherwise. Whatever the outcome it is worrying to have any such cloud hanging over the hitherto impeccable leader of an institution whose credibility must be beyond doubt in every possible way.
If Tlakula presides over the national elections next year (which look as though they will be more hotly contested than any national election yet) with that cloud still hovering above her head, or with the issues it raises unresolved, there is the danger that she could compromise the integrity of the institution. Her personal battle could impair the IEC's workings, and political parties are going to be tempted to play politically dangerous games with such matters.
The leadership of the IEC needs to ensure that there is no repeat of the Tlokwe scenario anywhere else in the country. They need to review the body's recruitment procedures and training and its orientation processes; they should strengthen any other mechanisms that can ensure transparency and fairness in their work.
South Africa's democracy is not so well developed that it can survive too many attacks on its foundations or too many malfunctions in its inner workings. The IEC is a vital guardian of the processes that give our democracy life and it has to be made very safe, for all of our sakes.