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South Africa

South Africa’s election management body has done a good job for 30 years: here’s why

todayMarch 20, 2024 19

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By Dirk Kotze, University of South Africa


More than in previous elections, South Africa’s Electoral Commission (IEC) will be tested to the hilt in this year’s national and provincial elections on 29 May. For the first time in 30 years, the electoral majority of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is in jeopardy. This makes the upcoming poll the most consequential one since 1994, when the country commenced with its democratisation.

The electoral commission’s tasks are to enforce the rules of the electoral game and the parties’ ethical conduct. It must also be the dispute resolution champion and ensure that the election is free and fair. These are the primary contributions the commission can make towards promoting and consolidating electoral democracy.

The circumstances of this year’s elections will put additional pressure on the IEC to be a fair umpire of this contest. It thus can’t afford to be mired in controversy.

The commission has to implement an amended but interim electoral system which allows independents to stand for the first time, but which is not yet well understood by the public.

In my view as a political scientist who has studied South African politics, elections, conflict resolution and comparative democratisation over the past three decades, the IEC’S track record is a sound reason to expect it to perform well in this year’s election.

In a recent paper, I set out how the IEC has developed a reputation as an effective electoral management body which maintains a high level of institutional independence and efficiency. The operational quality of elections under its jurisdiction is seldom challenged.

The electoral commission’s institutional independence is a very important factor. The fact that the elections in South Africa have always been declared free and fair, and by the international community, is another factor. The fact that public opinion in South Africa has been generally satisfied with the management of elections for the past 30 years is a critical condition for the quality of democracy to be strengthened.

Democracy and institutional independence

My research article sets out how South Africa’s electoral body has cultivated an institutional independence that is envied by many other election commissions. Its composition contributes much to this independence. The commission’s five members are not allowed to have a prominent party-political profile. This contrasts with other electoral commissions, such as the one in Angola, which consist primarily of party representatives.

Candidates for the South African commission positions are interviewed in public by a panel chaired by the chief justice, and consisting of the public protector and two members of the six other commissions set up in terms of chapter 9 of the constitution. The National Assembly approves the short list, which is then submitted to the president for final appointment. The National Assembly is also the only body that can remove an IEC commissioner from office.

As an indication of its independence, the commission accounts to the National Assembly (public representatives) for all its actions and responsibilities, not to the cabinet. It must submit an annual report to parliament’s multiparty portfolio committee on home affairs – not to a minister or government institution. Its budget is presented to parliament by the Department of Home Affairs but is ring-fenced for its exclusive use. In this respect the independence of electoral management is entrenched.

The IEC’s public accountability is enhanced by the way international and domestic observer missions scrutinise elections and the commission’s conduct. In the past, the Southern African Development Community , the African Union, the Commonwealth, the European Union and even the United Nations have deployed observer teams in South Africa. Their mandate was to observe all the components of an election, including the commission’s performance. Their verdicts determine whether an election is regarded as free and fair. The IEC has opened applications to observe the 2024 election.

Free and fair elections as a democratic yardstick

The IEC can be given credit for institutionalising important mechanisms to ensure that elections are free and fair. One of them is the party liaison committees at different levels. They are a novel South African invention which serves as a communication channel between the electoral commission and all participating parties. It’s also a dispute resolution mechanism to identify problems at an early stage and resolve them. Many potentially debilitating problems have been identified and resolved by them over the years. Numerous electoral commissions have visited South Africa to learn about these committees.

The South African electoral dispensation expects the IEC to create an environment conducive to free and fair elections. At the end of the elections it has the responsibility to declare whether they were indeed free and fair.

As major players in elections, electoral management bodies are often compromised in disputes and cannot, therefore, be the referees of whether elections are free and fair. That’s why in many other countries, this judgment is made by their supreme court and not by the commissions themselves.

The test of public opinion

The main test of the IEC’s contribution towards democracy is public opinion. The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in South Africa conducts surveys before and after every election to determine the public’s opinion on the elections, the IEC and its performance, and their views on some democratic indicators.

The surveys show that, during the period 2013-2018, the highest democratic ideal in the public’s mind was “free and fair elections” followed by “freedom of expression”. Trust in “free and fair elections” showed the greatest decline between 2013 and 2021.

The HSRC researchers interpreted these trends as being influenced by declining trust in public institutions and dissatisfaction with democratic performance in general. Trust in the IEC remained very high.

An uncontroversial electoral body

Constitutional institutions like the IEC cannot function in isolation. The social dynamics of democracy inevitably influence its own reputation for better or for worse.

Elections – especially managing the counting of ballots and announcing the results – can be very controversial. They have disrupted the political landscape in many countries. South Africa’s IEC has so far avoided such instability and managed to protect the integrity of the country’s elections.The Conversation

Dirk Kotze, Professor in Political Science, University of South Africa

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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