Pansy Tlakula may be off the hook for now when it comes to staying in her position to head Tuesday’s elections, but the perception of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is critical, her predecessors say.
Both Judge Johann Kriegler, the first head of the IEC and his successor Dr Brigalia Bam warned that the credibility of the country’s electoral administration depended on it being viewed as being honest, in interviews with the Mail & Guardian.
Tlakula, who previously enjoyed widespread respect as the third chair of the IEC after Kriegler and Bam, has come under a cloud for her problematic role in a botched R320-million leasing deal for the IEC’s new headquarters. The public protector found in August 2013 that the procurement process was flawed, and that Tlakula was responsible for maladministration and a conflict of interest given that her business partner in a separate company was involved in the deal. A subsequent forensic audit by treasury recommended by the public protector made similar findings.
In the wake of the scandal, five political parties have attempted court action to oust Tlakula, IEC workers have gone on strike demanding her resignation and, despite the support of the country’s major political parties, many South Africans across social networks and media articles have expressed their dismay and distrust of the entire organisation thanks to the controversy surrounding Tlakula. New party leader Julius Malema has threatened civil war over the issue.
“Ultimately elections, as complex as they are, are public relations exercises in a very material respect,” Kriegler told the M&G. “The people have got to respect the process. If they don’t, the fact that it was a technically perfect election is irrelevant.”
‘Sacredness’ of elections
Bam pointed out the importance of elections to South Africans. “We are still at a stage in this country of treating elections with sacredness … South Africans love elections,” she said in a separate interview. “That’s why the [IEC] has to be sensitive to the dynamics of the nation and to the demands of South Africans. The only thing that protects us is integrity.”
Both Bam and Kriegler were talking generally, and were adamant that they did not want to comment on the current situation except in broad terms, out of respect for their successors.
“I don’t think it would be proper for me to express any views on it, except on broad-principle things, like how it is highly undesirable for the credibility of your electoral administrator to be under a cloud in the run up to the elections.”
But Kriegler did not believe there was much cause for worry technically speaking, a view shared by many experts observing these elections.
“I really think we can expect the elections to go off technically well. I see no reason to be concerned electorally at all.”
‘No logical connection, but … ‘
Political analyst Professor Steven Friedman, who has done extensive work in election research, agreed.
“There is no logical connection between Tlakula’s financial dealings and the outcome of the election being free and fair,” he has previously told the M&G.
But Friedman noted that the political implications of the scandal were critical.
“The fact is elections are about perceptions and credibility … The credibility of elections is about losers. If people are part of the process beforehand, they can’t cry sour after … You don’t want a situation where people could cry sour for no reason.”
Sources in the country’s major political parties, particularly the Democratic Alliance and the ANC, previously told the M&G that Tlakula was a good and fair electoral head and that the pressure to have her removed was a combination of ignorance and jockeying for position within the IEC.
But for Friedman, while Tlakula may be technically competent to run an election, the pall cast over her abilities in a separate matter has tainted the process.
For Kriegler, the botched leasing deal was not the most serious concern.
“I’m not worried about a suggestion that the chair, when she was the chief executive, influenced the hiring of a building,” he said. “I’m much more worried about Tlkowe, where it is suggested that the local IEC agent was not impartial, and down in KwaZulu-Natal the same thing.”
Kriegler cautioned that a leader of such an institution had to be perceived to be above reproach in all regards.
“I think if the referee is an unresolved insolvent, people are inclined to say: well you know we can’t have a person of doubtful integrity or doubtful financial ability in an important position,” he said by way of an example.
Bam noted that human mistakes and imperfections were a given in any elections.
“You can make mistakes in elections, you can have human errors,” she said. “We have had so many! Ballot boxes are nowhere to be found, and so on. People are very forgiving of human error.”
SA needs to trust the IEC
But on the eve of this election, that sense of trust has appeared to have declined with an atmosphere ripe for suspicion. Reports started circulating on social media on Monday of ballot boxes allegedly found at party agents’ houses, leading to unease among some voters.
Kriegler reiterated the importance of being seen as honest based on his experiences of running the often messy 1994 elections, which was seen as mostly successful.
“We had a flawed election that was seen by the electorate to be a poor thing but our own,” he said. “Ensure that the people trust you. You can get away with a great deal if people think you’re doing the best you can and they can trust you … That’s crucial. And that’s why I’m so sad, rightly or wrongly, when there are grounds for criticism of the integrity of an electoral administrator. It’s bad, whether it was justified or not.”