The chief electoral officer of the Electoral Commission of South Africa’s (IEC), Sy Mamabolo, rattles off statistics with ease, and on everything — from the percentage of candidate lists submitted digitally to the length of the ballot paper required to accommodate the whopping 48 political parties contesting the polls on May 8.
South Africa’s top election nerd, he has to know to the very last detail how the IEC will deliver on its mandate. With more than 20 years’ election experience, Mamabolo appears calm and up to the task of doing his part to deliver on what promises to be the toughest national election since 1994.
He is a father of two, a Catholic deacon and an avid Arsenal supporter. It is his first election as the IEC’s chief electoral officer, basically akin to a chief executive in a regular company. The commission’s chairperson, Vuma Mashinini, can be compared with a chairperson of the board.
The chief electoral officer runs the administration and is also its accounting officer. His or her task is to deliver on the nitty-gritty — to register political parties, oversee the list process and see to the logistics, the staffing and equipment: in effect, to ensure a smooth election. A hefty task in South Africa under normal circumstances.
But elections are rarely simple and this year’s is no exception, with new challenges emerging as our democracy matures and the nature and intensity of political contestation increase after each poll.
Load-shedding threatens to cast its shadow all the way to May 8, when South Africans head to the polls; the governing party, the ANC, is in effect two parties with divergent views and goals scrunched into one; many new parties are contesting the election; and the country is still recovering in the aftermath of a devastating state-capture project, which has crippled the economy and key institutions.
It’s a mess.
But Mamabolo’s experience inspire confidence. He has worked for the IEC for nearly 20 years, including as a Gauteng electoral officer for seven years, a deputy chief electoral officer for five years and as a chief electoral officer for about 18 months.
Besides elections, his pastoral responsibilities take up much of his time — he delivers homilies during Mass at the Maryvale Catholic Church in Johannesburg. His spiritual work helps him to destress, he says.
“I destress by reading a lot of homilies because they refresh me, they give me perspectives that I otherwise didn’t think about. It helps me to relax and write my own homilies.”
Mamabolo says his job fulfills him, knowing that government is shaped by the participation of the people and that its aim is to improve the lives of South Africans.
“I spent my youthful life in the student movement … I see this job as bringing to fruition aspirations about our country that I had as a young person. So the fulfillment I derive from this work is to see governance that is shaped by participation of people and governance that results in the betterment of the living conditions of people.
“It comes with a bit of blood and sweat because arranging an election is never an easy business.
“Political parties are at the best of times difficult because they all want to procure maximum advantage for themselves and you are in a constant endeavour to get a balance between the interests of all competitors, on the one hand,yet at the same time you have to be alive to the fact that there is a regulatory and legal framework to which you must fully comply at all times and sometimes there are tensions between those imperatives.”
Failing to manage those tensions could prove disastrous and Mamabolo and the IEC will once again be put through their paces as South Africa decides the course of the sixth democratic administration.