The disruption of the municipal ward demarcation process by the Covid-19 lockdown regulations is likely to result in the 2021 local government elections being delayed until at least November next year.
The public consultation process on ward demarcations, which is central to municipal elections, had to be abandoned in March, with delays meaning the final delimitation of wards will only take place in November, instead of at the end of April.
The term of office of South Africa’s councils and councillors ends in August, with electoral law stating that the poll must take place within 90 days of their final day in office.
Masego Sheburi, the deputy chief electoral officer responsible for electoral matters at the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), said this week that the Municipal Demarcation Board (MDB) responsible for ward delimitation for the 2021 poll would only be able to finalise its work between August and November. “This occasions a corresponding delay in setting the election programme, in terms of being able to hold the election from mid-August. We must now adjust to mid-November. Whether or not that is possible, still remains to be seen.”
He said that the election date, which would be announced by Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, would only be set after discussions with the IEC, the MDB and other vested parties.
“A postponement of the local government elections would require some serious thought. There is no constitutional provision or anticipation that an election could be postponed,” he said.
Sheburi said the IEC had asked for a meeting with Dlamini-Zuma to discuss the election and hoped to have done so before the end of May.
The meeting would have to assess whether free and fair elections were possible under the current conditions.
Thus far, the IEC has applied to the electoral court to postpone 37 by-elections in wards around the country that had been scheduled to be held in April, June and July.
“A key consideration is that while it is theoretically possible to make adjustments to the process at the voting station, you cannot
deliver free and fair elections in the context of the lockdown and the restriction of movement of persons,’’ he said.
Lockdown regulations prevented canvassing and other processes leading up to voting day, while
voters themselves could not vote, even if regulations were lifted to level one.
He said the IEC had developed a discussion document on how to run an election under conditions of a pandemic, and would be talking about it with other roleplayers to see if “we can avoid the voting station becoming a site of contagion”.
MDB chairperson Thabo Manyoni said the public consultation process regarding ward demarcation had only been completed in Mpumalanga by the time the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed.
Consultations in a total of 19 municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Gauteng still needed to be completed, while the process was yet to start in Limpopo, Free State, Northern Cape and North West.
Manyoni said public hearings could not be held, so residents were being asked to comment in writing, rather than attending physical hearings.
“Given the uncharted territory we are traversing, we are fully committed to support the government in the fight against the virus and abide by the set regulations. In the interest of providing an equal opportunity to all community members to participate meaningfully to determine their own wards, we urge them to submit written submissions,” he said.