Editorial: IEC integrity can’t be compromised

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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

ANC starts up its engine for 2021 race

The party seems to have abandoned plans to delay municipal polls as branches shift to election mode

IEC ready for elections despite budget and Covid setbacks

The Electoral Commission of South Africa said next year's local government elections will go ahead despite the pandemic as it has plans in place to keep employees and voters safe

South Africa must implement privacy laws to protect citizens, says UN expert

The UN says South Africa lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to implementing measures to keep private information safe from governments and corporations

IEC fields elections integrity queries

The IEC said it would be conducting an audit of votes cast at a sample of voting stations to establish whether double voting did, in fact, occur.

IEC upholds one list objection — against PAC candidate

The IEC announced on Tuesday that only one of the 52 objections it received was upheld

ANC rejects public’s list objections

The decision by the electoral commission will make or break the party’s voting trajectory

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

It’s not a ‘second wave’: Covid resurges because safety measures...

A simple model shows how complacency in South Africa will cause the number of infections to go on an upward trend again

Unisa shortlists two candidates for the vice-chancellor job

The outgoing vice-chancellor’s term has been extended to April to allow for a smooth hand-over

How US foreign policy under Donald Trump has affected Africa

Lesotho has been used as a microcosm in this article to reflect how the foreign policy has affected Africa

Trouble brewing for Kenya’s coffee growers

Kenyan farmers say theft of their crop is endemic – and they suspect collusion

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday