Politics muddy IEC's integrity

The upcoming national poll will mark the 20th anniversary of South Africa's democracy, and must be above reproach. (Lisa Skinner)

The upcoming national poll will mark the 20th anniversary of South Africa's democracy, and must be above reproach. (Lisa Skinner)

Adversaries across South Africa's political divide have united to try to stabilise the deeply divided Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to ensure next year's crucial national election is not compromised. The 2014 elections coincide with the country's 20th anniversary as a democracy.

Voter registration is scheduled to start next month. But with paralysing battles raging in the IEC, there are serious concerns that preparations for the milestone elections could be hampered.

The IEC is highly respected across the continent, where it has been involved in a number of successful elections.
But tensions are running high inside the organisation  in the wake of the release of public protector Thuli Madonsela's damning report on flouted tender processes,  which has led to the sidelining of IEC chairperson Pansy Tlakula.

Senior respected bureaucrats in the IEC –including chief executive Mosotho Moepya and his deputy Norman du Plessis –are also in the firing line.

Fearing a fractured and dysfunctional electoral body's effectiveness during the time of a crucial national election, South Africa's major political parties are desperately trying to resolve the matter.

The top five leaders at the IEC are deeply divided over the report, released in August. Madonsela found that Tlakula had failed to declare a separate business relationship with the head of the company that won the R320-million contract to lease a building to the IEC.

The report appears to have coalesced existing tensions between Tlakula and most of the four other commissioners, one of whom called her arrogant and "difficult to work with". 

The report also recommended that Moepya and Du Plessis face disciplinary action. 

Sources say the commission is vacillating over whether to suspend them in a show of force and commitment to integrity. 

It will be an easier job than disciplining Tlakula, who is governed by much stricter rules and processes. 

But should the two be suspended, the implications for a smoothly run election are vast.

Members of various parties have described Moepya and Du Plessis as stalwarts of the IEC with vast caches of institutional knowledge and say they are integral to the operational management of the elections. 

"You're going to take out the chief executive and his deputy: between them they have the greatest amount of institutional knowledge," said one political party representative. 

The IEC said no action had been taken, and was waiting on legal advice on how to deal with the recommendations of the report. 

But one party member, who is worried about the stability of upcoming elections, said: "You can get legal advice to suit yourself." 

The divided nature of the IEC manifested itself with the recent cancellation of a meeting between the ANC and the electoral body.

Two weeks ago, an outraged electoral commissioner informed journalists the meeting, aimed at stabilising the divided body, had been abruptly cancelled.

A source close to the IEC said the point of the meeting was to urge "a degree of caution and to get a better understanding of where the headspace was of the various commissioners" in the tense fallout of the public protector's report.

The IEC's top leadership is made up of Tlakula as chair, her deputy Terry Tselane and three commissioners: Judge Thami Makhanya, Bongani Finca and Raenette Taljaard. Sources say Tselane, Finca and Taljaard are taking a hardline approach to Tlakula.

Tlakula would not comment except to say that she was not being isolated by anyone in the organisation.

"I am performing all my functions and duties as the chair of this commission," she said.

Tensions between the commissioners date back to their appointments in 2011, when several were mooted for the job of chairperson, but the popular Tlakula was chosen instead. 

Those close to the IEC say there may be a jostling by certain individuals gunning for Tlakula's position. Some sources accuse Finca or Tselane, long-time friends, as key figures in the saga. 

But Tselane laughed off the allegation. 

"Deputies have a very bad image," he said, adding he did know what his friend Finca's ambitions were, as the question had "never arisen".

But South Africa's major political parties –with the exception of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the United Democratic ?Movement (UDM) –are concerned about the divisions. 

Several members of the party liaison committee, which regularly meets with the IEC, told the Mail & Guardian that the reaction to the public protector's report was overblown. 

They feared that the IEC commissioners would start suspending key individuals to show they were acting to preserve their previously impeccable reputation.

"Corruption is a huge issue in the country," said one. "Any natural reaction of an oversight body is: ‘Who can we chop? We must be seen to act on this.' "

But such actions could be disastrous, said another.

"Looking for heads to roll months from an election … I think we're tampering with elections," said the second liaison committee member. 

"New people will not have that depth of experience and be able to handle the complex challenges of an election."

"We need to resist the temptation to bring out a guillotine and chop off a few heads," said a third party representative.

"If you're going to take action it should be on the basis of facts."

But parties such as the IFP and the UDM have called for sterner action. The UDM's Bantu Holomisa led the initial charge against Tlakula. 

"People must not make the mistake of thinking that Pansy is indispensable," he told the M&G. It was a line echoed by the IEC commissioners. 

But the larger parties working together to maintain the status quo at the IEC said: "Holomisa doesn't know what he has in the top leadership of the IEC."

The group of parties also said that it was easy to bear a grudge against Tlakula over decisions in past elections but politicians shouldn't let it influence one's judgment in the current situation. 

Indeed, a complaint by the IFP's representative to the committee, Albert Mncwango, quickly segued from a complaint about the current situation to a general list of grievances. 

"The IFP has always complained about the way the IEC has managed its own business," he said.

"We have been to the courts, to the streets, we have submitted volumes of our grievances against the IEC simply because we are not happy with how they conduct themselves."

But the IFP is the odd one out when it comes to the IEC's history. The body has been almost universally praised for their free and fair handling of elections.

"All of us hate her sometimes because she says no to everyone when she has to," said a party member who wanted Tlakula to remain in her position. 

"But she treats no one unfairly."

Even a smidgeon of suspicion over how the elections were handled could have dangerous implications with disgruntled parties questioning the results, sources believe.

"From a party perspective it's absolutely in nobody's interest at this stage that we tamper with the officials in the electoral commission and certainly not about something that happened two years ago," said a party member who has been involved with the IEC since its inception. 

"To tamper with top leadership in the IEC now is lunacy." 

The parties are hoping to influence the IEC through the party liaison committee meetings. 

Their role in the Parliament ad hoc committee set up to respond to the report is another avenue but it is legally fraught. 

Parliament is constitutionally bound to respect the independence of both the IEC and the public protector, and cannot contradict the public protector's report or recommend any action to the IEC with regards to Tlakula. 

The committee has adjourned and is awaiting legal advice on the matter.

Meanwhile, political parties intent on stabilising the IEC will look for other means to prevent one of the biggest electoral fallouts post-democratic South Africa has ever seen. –additional reporting by Mmanaledi Mataboge

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms. 
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  • Mmanaledi Mataboge

    Mmanaledi Mataboge

    Mmanaledi Mataboge is the Mail & Guardian's political editor. Raised in a rural village, she later studied journalism in a township where she fell in love with the medium of radio. This former radio presenter and producer previously worked as a senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian, and writes on politics, government, and anything that gives the disadvantaged, poor, and the oppressed a voice.
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