So far, sources close to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) say, new chair Vuma Mashinini has held the line, even when a bullying MEC tried to irregularly move a by-election. But only two weeks into the job, he faces perceptions that he will be sympathetic to the ruling party.
Mail & Guardian editor Verashni Pillay sat down with Mashinini to talk about his past, his politics and the public protector report that led his predecessor Pansy Tlakula to step down.
There is a perception of a systematic effort to “capture” state institutions that are intended to operate independently. What is your response in light of your appointment?
I respect that anybody who comes into a public office should be subjected to the full scrutiny of the fourth estate as well as the public. But a person is eligible for the commission by being a citizen and, secondly, that they are not a prominent member of a political party. I am a South African citizen and this country has invested in me the experience I had before in the IEC. It’s my passion.
You were adviser to the president until you started at the IEC. What exactly did you do?
The assignment was to do a review of all our state-owned enterprises. We started in 2010 and we delivered the report in 2012. The president then asked if I could assist with the implementation of the report. I served him for a period of about two years: not as the leader of the ANC but as the head of state.
If I work with you every day for two or more years, I’ll still feel a sense of loyalty to you in a different role. Isn’t that the concern with you and Zuma?
I have also served leaders of other political parties in my work. I served Lionel Mtshali, premier of KwaZulu-Natal, who was from the IFP. I do have a background of political activism. If you are part of the 1976 generation you had to take a stand in this country and that, for me, I will stand by it. You come from somewhere, but when you get a role the issue is: Do you understand your role or not?
Are you an active ANC member?
I don’t think that’s a fair question. I have nothing to hide, but I’m saying as a matter of principle: Are you asking me, the head of the commission, which party do I vote for, when we are saying your vote is your secret? So I am drawing the line there.
In 2008 Saab Grintek Defence concluded a R95-million black empowerment deal with a consortium in which you served as a director and shareholder. The deal was part of the fulfilment of their offset obligations under the arms deal but was at least partly seen as buying political cover. Your response?
The issue of the offsets as a whole is a very, very controversial matter and I don’t think the South African public has actually benefited as was originally envisaged. Companies were actually released from those offsets and given credit for other things.
These deals are often rip-offs. They use black people to get business. The stake was open for sale and we put [in] a consortium and like everyone else we chased the deal, but I resigned as a director. Subsequently we have heard that it has gone under and I don’t even have a penny from it. It’s one of those things. I was a shareholder and I resigned about two years back. Some of the companies and banks are ripping us off as black entrepreneurs. The manner in which they went about it left a lot to be desired, but I’ve moved on. I don’t want it to cloud the election issues.
It’s been over two years since the release of the public protector’s report on the IEC. We were hearing talk of disciplinary action against the chief executive and his deputies, and we saw leaks and smear campaigns against some of the commissioners emerging in the media.
Well, that’s what you experienced. From my side there is a sense that the institution actually is gearing [up] for the elections. These are matters that can be deferred till after the elections. Elections are like a war: you may have some challenges and differences as a country, but the focus is to win the war.
The same thing was said at the 2014 national election. Is it fair to expect your senior management to go into yet another election with the threat of a possible disciplinary process still hanging over their heads?
Of course, if there are still processes of disciplinary [action], it would actually have an effect on the individuals.
We’ll have the time to address this after the elections, but yes, we’ll keep the morale up and we’ll provide a supportive environment to those actually driving the institution.
As increasing contestation threatens the ANC’s majority, are there concerns about pressure on the IEC from the ruling party?
But what would be the pressures? Let’s start there.
Look at the Tlokwe case. The electoral court heard evidence that the law had been breached.
The Tlokwe case is not a matter that I have actually engaged with so it’s not a matter I can speak with authority on. Our vice-chair can update us.
But what pressure can anybody put on a system like we have? From the selection of the presiding officers [to] how objections and concerns are attended to, there are lots of checks and balances.
The systems are in place but we’re going to enter a time when political parties are going to get more desperate and we’ll see greater contestation.
I couldn’t agree with you more on that. A by-election by its nature has this particular loophole in that the boundary of a ward can end here and the people across belong to the other side. Now on the day of a by-election the people [on] that side can be asked by any party to come this side and register, and we are obliged to take them.
Solutions may end up being controversial. The day a councillor passes away or a vacancy arises the voting roll could be closed. But there’ll be those, including yourselves, who will cry foul about denial of the rights of those particular people. So we have identified issues, and are continually improving.
Are you ready for the push-back when powerful people are angry with you?
If you are a referee or an umpire in a game you expect what goes with the turf. But the collective decisions of the commission are what guide me as a chair, not me as an individual. – Additional reporting by Sam Sole