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Can South Africa conduct electronic elections?

The national chairperson of Herman Mashaba’s political party, Action SA, Michael Beaumont, has said that even with Covid-19 in a full third wave, this cannot be used as an excuse to postpone the upcoming local government elections. 

Beaumont was speaking on Wednesday at the inquiry probing whether the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) can safely hold free and fair local government elections in October despite the pandemic. 

The inquiry, headed by former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, has been hearing oral submissions in Centurion since 28 June. 

“South Africa has a huge corruption and accountability problem. Therefore, holding an election is one of the mechanisms that can be used to address these issues. We are aware of alert level 4, but even given that, postponing this election should be the last resort. We cannot afford it,” said Beaumont.

“Political parties should stop seeking special treatment and making excuses,” he said. 

“The IEC should not entertain excuses. Because, there is not a single organisation that was not forced to make adjustments in how they operate by the pandemic. In all that political parties have been involved in since March last year, they have been using that time to campaign in one way or the other. So the virus is no excuse.”

Moseneke said although there were concerns from civil society organisations about the threat of postponing elections, there was also the possibility of a threat to human life should the elections continue. He said the IEC had a duty to assure citizens their lives would not be threatened should the elections continue.

“Medical evidence suggests that if we reach a certain level of community/herd immunity, the risk associated with Covid-19 may be reduced,” he said.

The nation was divided on the issue of voting during a pandemic. “Some people have expressed concerns of being afraid to die. Some have come to me and said that come hell or high water, these elections must continue. That is why we are here,” he said. 

Electronic voting?

Addressing the possibility of electronic voting, Moseneke said that voter registration cost “R400-million in one day”. “Now you can imagine the number of people involved in that whole process. That  is fascinating in its own way. If you cut out the bodies in the electoral process, that would bring much relief and help us,” said Moseneke.

In his submission, Bennitto Motitswe, the chairperson of the Letsema Centre for Democracy and Development, said that South Africa could not fall into the “trap” of postponing the October elections. 

“We want to emphasise that free and fair elections are not about Covid-19. They are people-centred. We are saying to you, Justice, we must think beyond Covid-19. Postponing these elections will make us fall in the trap that elections are postponed willingly. It’s about legitimacy more than anything,” said Motitswe.

“If we do postpone, then we will say the IEC is missing an opportunity to stabilise elections even beyond Covid-19, meaning we are failing to explore other possible ways of voting. Students are already voting electronically and financial institutions handle our finances electronically. Why can’t we trust the same platforms [with] the fairness of elections?” asked Motitswe.

The director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), William Bird, said in his submission: “We believe the media will be in a good position to cover these elections well. They have a critical role they play in the democratic processes of the country, particularly in the context of elections. The media helps voters to understand better how they can vote and in making informed political decisions.”

Bird said the MMA would be strengthening its efforts to help the media fight disinformation and misinformation leading up to and during the elections, and would be working with the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) to achieve this. 

According to Bird, there were also growing concerns of rising threats to media freedom in the country and the threats posed to journalists. These were some of the issues that they would help address.

He said the MMA was not an authority on the pandemic, thus it could only advise that the IEC study all measures to ensure human lives are not threatened.

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Chris Gilili
Chris Gilili is a climate and environmental journalist at the Mail & Guardian’s environmental unit, covering socioeconomic issues and general news. Previously, he was a fellow at amaBhungane, the centre for investigative journalism.

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