/ 31 May 2024

The IEC was short of money and time ahead of polls

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The Results Operation Centre (ROC) in Midrand, during South Africa's 2024 elections. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

It was of course the uMkhonto weSizwe party party that fired the first shot at the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) after logistical problems left voters standing in long, winter-cold queues deep into the night on Wednesday.

In accusing the commission of denying South Africans the constitutional right to choose their government, the party was continuing Jacob Zuma’s timeworn strategy of undermining key institutions, including the revenue service and the prosecuting authority, for political and private gain. 

The party called for the IEC’s leadership to resign in a missive on Thursday morning, for focusing on its “persecution and disqualification” of the former president to favour the ANC, instead of running free and fair elections

The inference was clear and crude — the commission, in an act of bias, had subverted the democratic will of the people to be led by Zuma again. He does not believe in constitutional limits, anyway.

It is a dangerous attack on a body that has won credit for the way in which it has handled six previous post-apartheid national elections  but went into this one burdened by financial and operational challenges. The biggest of the latter was implementing a new electoral system enshrined in an amendment bill only signed into law in April last year.

The amendment was made in response to the constitutional court ruling in New Nation Movement NPC and Others v President of the Republic and Others in 2020 which declared South Africa’s party list system unconstitutional in that it did not allow individuals or independent candidates to stand for election at a national or provincial level.

The court gave parliament 24 months to amend the law, but the legislature twice asked for an extension of the deadline. 

Once the amended Act was finally promulgated, the provision that independent candidates must collect signatures equal to 15% of the votes they would need to secure a seat in a constituency was challenged.

In December, the apex court ordered that this requirement be substituted with a provision lowering the number of signatures to 1 000. Substitution is an extraordinary step but it was done in recognition of the fact that there was too little time left to amend the Act before the elections.

The changes the IEC had to make with very limited preparation time included considering and registering a groundswell of new candidates and providing each voter with a third ballot, which accommodated independent candidates contesting a seat in their region for one of the 200 regional seats in the National Assembly. As a result, the commission needed more staff and more electoral material.

Its chief financial officer Dawn Mbatha has said the amendments to the Electoral Act had a “huge impact” on its budget and confirmed that funding for this week’s poll was the subject of extensive to-and-fro with the treasury.

The IEC was facing budget cuts of R280.3 million for this year, after its medium-term allocation was adjusted downwards by Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana last year.

In February, Godongwana said he would largely reverse the cut because the IEC would require “additional funding in the adjusted budget to allow for extensive voter education and mobilisation given the changes to the electoral laws around independent candidates”. 

“The national treasury’s engagements with the IEC have shown that costs related to the 2024 national and provincial elections can be accommodated within the entity’s baseline through the retention of surplus funds,” he said in the budget overview. 

This referred to unspent funds from the previous year. This roll-over of R1.5 was approved, the treasury said on Thursday, stressing that the IEC said if this was done, it would “not require any additional allocation for election-related activities”. It said it also allowed additional allocations of R350 million for the security of the election process. 

The treasury’s rethink left the IEC with a real budget cut of about R30 million. The funding needed for electoral operations, administration, outreach and party allocations came to R2.46 billion, while its allocation from the treasury finally amounted to R2.3 billion. 

From this, it had to find money to defend legal challenges from candidates found ineligible, the most famous case being that of Zuma.

On Wednesday, as voters queued for hours because there were too few ballot boxes and scanners were faulty, social media commentators were quick to criticise the commission for spending time in court instead of on the ground, preparing for a big voter turnout. 

They forgot that it was Zuma who took the IEC to court on the most contrived of arguments. Not defending the challenge or appealing the electoral court’s ruling in his favour would have been untenable.

Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa analyst Ebrahim Fakir said the election had been plagued with “administrative, management and logistical problems” but the IEC, was not entirely to blame as its budget had been slashed and it had faced a slew of “needless” and  “vexatious litigation” when the legal rules on elections are clear. 

He cited Zuma’s challenge and that brought by the Democratic Alliance, which wanted the IEC to accommodate voters at hundreds of destinations abroad.

“They must take responsibility for the management, administrative and logistical rubbish that happened, and there was a lot of it, but it was not all of their own doing,” Fakir said.

He said the implementation of the new electoral system had not given the IEC enough time to prepare for the election — it needed at least 18 months but only had about a year.

The addition of the third ballot paper also extended voting time as people took longer to complete their slips. As for the scanners, Fakir said it was not clear whether the devices had been adequately stress-tested in the field.

“Technology is going to fail and I am not sure that they trained their staff sufficiently …”

Centre for Risk Analysis executive director Chris Hattingh said the scanners did seem to prove the biggest practical problem and that it took long to default to manual mode.

“Once it was clear many didn’t work, it took a long time for some voting stations to switch to manually checking the voters’ roll.

“Staffing and training problems were a clear and definite concern and hindrance. Perhaps there was also not enough voter education around the three-ballot system,” Hattingh said.

In KwaZulu-Natal, where early results showed the MK party taking the lion’s share of votes, provincial electoral commissioner Ntombifuthi Masinga said the IEC saw a surge in voters after lunchtime on Wednesday and problems with electronic devices made for delays.

The midday surge proved a problem despite the fact that the IEC had increased staffing at polling stations. 

“We saw an interesting phenomenon in townships and city centres — people came in their numbers after lunch — no matter how many resources you had, if you looked at the crowds in those voting stations, I don’t think any number would have been enough,” Masinga said.

“In some of our voting stations, presiding officers were quite overwhelmed with the numbers we saw coming in after lunch.”

Turning to electronic glitches, she conceded there was a problem and said staff were advised to “put the VMD [voter management devices] aside if it is the reason we are experiencing delays”.

“After that we saw improvement. But because of the numbers, particularly in the voting centres, and high-population [voting districts], we saw a large number of queues, which was replicated in other different parts of the country.”

Asked how much the IEC’s case against Zuma had cost the commission, Masinga said: “I would be lying if I could tell you.”