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New IEC stalwart: Making sure 2019 reflects SA’s true will

CAPE TOWN — In a political climate where the appointment of every high-profile official is automatically suspect, the almost universal welcoming of Sy Mamabolo as South Africa’s new Chief Electoral Officer is reassuring. There’s a lot at stake, come 2019. Officially upgraded from Acting Chief Electoral Officer after Mosotho Moepya declined to renew his five-year contract this May, Sy Mamabolo, formerly the deputy, has served the IEC for nearly 20 years, garnering a reputation for integrity, pragmatism and hard work. When the official opposition welcomes you into your post, you’re off to a good start. If there was any dirt on you, they’d have dug it up by now. He’s got his work cut out; to reduce the risk of more court challenges on the basis of illegitimate voting, the Concourt recently ruled that the IEC has to collect the correct addresses for all 26 million voters by June 2018. The IEC has increased the proportion of complete addresses of registered voters from 34% in March 2016 to 73% in October 2017. The proportion of registered voters with incomplete or generic addresses has dropped from 34% to 15%. Mamabolo believes prevailing political conditions are exciting as SA’s democracy comes of age and enters a new era. Let’s pray he’s right. (This below piece has been republished here with permission from Daily Maverick.) – Chris Bateman

By Greg Nicolson

The North West municipality of Tlokwe, of all places, could have prevented the 2016 municipal elections from going ahead. Independent candidates who lost out on positions in by-elections in 2013 challenged the legitimacy of the ballot because voters’ addresses hadn’t been recorded and voters were allegedly voting in the wrong district to manipulate the Tlokwe elections.

The matter went to the Constitutional Court, which ordered the IEC to record accurate voters’ addresses to prevent election fraud. In mid-2016, 60% of voters on the roll had either no or incomplete addresses. The municipal elections were allowed to proceed, but the court gave the IEC a deadline to capture all voters’ addresses: 30 June, 2018, roughly a year before the next national and provincial elections.

A women wearing ANC regalia casts her vote during the local government elections in Hillbrow, central Johannesburg, South Africa on August 3, 2016. REUTERS/James Oatway

On Wednesday, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) launched an online address capture campaign allowing South Africa’s 26-million voters to check, confirm and update their address details. Since its appearance in 2016 at the Constitutional Court, the IEC has made significant headway, but with less than two years to go until the next elections it has significant work to do to avoid the results being challenged due to voters being listed with no or incomplete addresses.

Each time there’s a by-election, the IEC advises voters to come and update their details. In a briefing on Wednesday, officials said they had increased the proportion of complete addresses from 34% of registered voters in March 2016 to 73% in October 2017. The proportion of registered voters with incomplete or generic addresses has reduced from 34% to 15%. The incidence of registered voters without any address has declined from 32% to approximately 11%.

Newly appointed chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo said 19-million voters had provided addresses. Of the seven million others, three million did not have an address on the roll and four million voters’ addresses were incomplete.

Read also: Warning! Beware the Russians wading into SA’s IEC election body – Mohale

“The credibility of elections hinges on the accuracy of the voters’ roll. By providing their addresses, voters are helping to ensure the credibility of the voters’ roll and thereby the freeness and fairness of future elections. The absence of addresses remains a critical risk to the integrity of elections,” he said. Mamabolo said the IEC has made progress but is very aware of the “huge undertaking” to meet the Constitutional Court’s requirements.

Because of the need to collect more addresses, elections have been postponed in Tlokwe and Metsimaholo, Free State. The 2016 Constitutional Court ruling struck a balance, allowing the municipal vote to proceed but mandating the IEC to collect addresses to safeguard the integrity of future elections. If the IEC fails to collect accurate addresses, the results of future by-elections and the 2019 vote could lead to court challenges.

“The electoral commission recognises that … it has since then made minimal further progress. This is, in the main, because no general registration weekend has taken place in the six-month period leading up to the filing of the report,” the IEC said in a submission to the court earlier this year.

It appears to have made strides since then and the online address registration drive is aimed at those on the roll who don’t have addresses, those whose addresses might be incomplete, those who have moved and need to update their addresses, and even those who have registered addresses but need to confirm them with the IEC. For voters who don’t have internet access, the IEC has proposed opening voting stations in 2018 to register or check their addresses. Treasury has committed R180-million to assist with collecting addresses, but according to a report the IEC needs at least R300-million for its campaign to collect addresses.

The IEC, however, will struggle to get accurate address details for all registered voters. It’s punting modifications to electoral legislation to make their record-keeping more flexible. There are around 22,600 voting districts within the country and each voter’s address must be tied to a district. The IEC suggests the law should be changed to tie voters to wards rather than districts. There are around 4,500 wards across South Africa.

IEC vice chairman Terry Tselane said it would be easier to register voters in wards than in districts. “One of the ways to resolve the challenge of the high degree of accuracy required is to propose amendments to the electoral legislation which will require the registration of a voter in the relevant ward rather than the relevant voting district.”

Read also: Revealed! Massive privately funded survey shows how Zuma is killing off ANC voter support

The IEC is seen as one of the country’s most sacred and respected institutions, but its leadership has been called into question in recent years. Chairperson Pansy Tlakula in 2014 had to resign over a botched leasing deal. Questions were asked about her successor Glen Mashinini’s links to President Jacob Zuma. In 2013, former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela recommended disciplinary proceedings be brought against the IEC’s chief electoral officer Mosotho Moepya for failing to provide her with key information regarding Tlakula’s leasing scandal.

Mamabolo was on Wednesday appointed to the position of chief IEC electoral officer, which was welcomed as a win for the institution’s independence and integrity. He has 20 years of electoral experience and has held key roles engaging with IEC stakeholders.

“The appointment of Mr Mamabolo points to systematic succession planning within the institution and will ensure skill retention,” said a statement from Parliament’s portfolio committee on communication services. “The committee has since the inception of the fifth Parliament interacted with Mr Mamabolo in his capacity as deputy CEO and acting CEO and is confident that he will continue to add value and strengthen governance in his new position.”

The DA’s Mike Moriarty said Mamabolo had acted “professionally, diligently and effectively” in his past IEC positions. “Mr Mamabolo has performed with distinction in various roles he has played within the organisation over nearly two decades. These roles include provincial electoral officer for Gauteng and deputy CEO: election management. In this latter role, he deserves large credit for last year’s elections, which were run successfully.”

While the IEC might be battling to collect voters’ addresses, its integrity, at least, remains intact due to Mamabolo’s appointment.

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