Interview With IEC Deputy Chief Electoral Officer

5 Jul 2022 (1 month ago)

What Is The Independent Electoral Commission?

The Independent Electoral Commission is a permanent body and Chapter 9 Institution created by the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. The IEC is responsible for the management of free and fair elections. They work independently of the government, however, they are still held accountable by Parliament.

According to Section 190 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, the IEC is mandated to manage national, provincial and municipal elections. They compile and maintain a voter's roll, regulate candidates, and declare election results.

Interview With Mr Mawethu Mosery

We sat down with Deputy Chief Electoral Officer of the Independent Electoral Commission, Mr Mawethu Mosery, to discuss the important work of the Independent Electoral Commission.

You can listen to the interview audio here. Or, you can read Mr Mosery's responses below.

1. You recently hosted the school Democracy Program. What brought you to spearhead this initiative? And what were the overall observations of your most recent visits?

That's correct. We did host programs with young people, particularly in the month of March and the month of April, and we will continue to do so until the end of September this year. Obviously, we are mindful that post-September is the final end-of-the-year examinations in a number of institutions.

Now, we are focusing on young people in schools. We are also focusing on young people in tertiary institutions. The reason we decided to focus on young people is that they carry the bulk of your first time voters. Your new voters are in this age group, and your future voters are also in this age group. So, for us, talking to South African citizens before the voting age, as they enter the voting age, is very important to encourage continued participation in our democracy, but also for them to have an interest in the governance of the country and how stable the country is, and how vibrant our democracy is - hence the focus there.

Secondly, this is a sector of our citizenry that probably has limited exposure in matters of state governance and state operations, and it is indeed our duty to enlighten, create a knowledge base, and also create a democratic culture amongst all of them. And for those reasons, we are focusing on young people. We are interested, as well, in young people outside of these two formal platforms of tertiary institutions or school. So we are also looking at youth out of school. We are looking at youth who may be young professionals entering the job market. We are considering how we can keep them engaged, keep them informed and give them knowledge of our democracy as a country.

It is not a new program. It is a programme that we've run over a number of years. As part of our initiatives this year, we said that since it's not an election year, let's give ourselves sufficient time to interact with the youth, hence the launch that we did in March, as well as the democracy focus that we did with the Department of Basic Education. One of the key things with Basic Education is that in their curriculum, they have elements of civic education as part of the curriculum - they need to know about the Constitution, about the flag, about the country's national governance structures. The role of citizens in the country are part of the things that are in our school curriculum, and we are assisting basic education to meet and deliver this information to young people.

2. How have some of the students responded to the outreach program?

Well, they responded in a very interesting way. At tertiary level, we also encouraged debates on topical political issues, and there were robust views and robust exchanges of ideas. And, obviously, matters of discomfort around the state and the work of the state were also voiced out. But overall, there was enthusiasm with young people, who were happy that they could participate, and happy that there was a platform for young people to share their views about the politics of the country. So on that score, they saw it as a very exciting engagement with us, and they are certainly continuing to participate. If you watch the social media platforms, many of them are still commenting about the experience and commenting about events taking place in other institutions. So in that way, we are keeping the young people engaged. We are also looking at using more of their platforms of communication to engage with issues of democracy, citizenship and voter responsibility. When we went into schools, the young people below the age of voting got to go through a mock voting process. Having ink on their thumbs was all the excitement. They were taking selfies to say the experience was good for them. So the reception has been very positive and , hence, the program is gaining momentum.

3. How are you going to monitor the results of this program? And what would success look like?

Well, success for us is basically the fact that the programme took place. The activity itself did take place, and there was participation with the activity, to the extent that we have photographic recording or recording in terms of videos, which is sufficient for us to show that the event has taken place and that there was a positive mood in the event. We are also looking forward to seeing whether the participants in these programs continue to participate in these programs so they remain continuously engaged, and eager to hear more and to interact more with our democracy and citizenship responsibility. And thirdly, we are looking forward to seeing whether those who are 16 and above are actually registering to vote and are now on the voters roll. We've seen numbers at all these events. They are quite encouraging for us, as the Commission, to say, 'Yes, indeed young people are participating!'. And there's a general trend that we've monitored, with all elections, that the young people who are registered for the first time for that coming election, are also likely to vote during that election, and therefore it is encouraging for us to engage with them. And we regard that as an indication that the engagement was valuable and the program is valuable.

4. So, besides the youth, we found on your websites when reading results from recent by-elections, specifically in local government, that voter turnout for these municipal by-elections are generally around 40%, sometimes more, sometimes less, but not ever particularly high. How is the IEC mitigating this?

Well, if we look at the issue of voter turnout over a period of time... If we go back to maybe 2000, when we first had these wall-to-wall municipalities in the country, the voter turnout was always between 47% and 50%. It was only in 2016 that the voter turnout for local government began going up and reached a percentage of 55% - and that was very encouraging. But when we went to the general elections in 2021, the voter turnout dropped again to about 45% of registered voters. So if you look at that trend, generally for local government municipalities' elections, we have a very low voter turnout of between 44% and 55%. That attests probably to the mindset towards local government, the perception towards local government by our citizenry as a whole in the country. This puts a demand on the work that we do as the Electoral Commission to motivate and promote participation in elections.

Now, when we go to by-elections, they indeed move between 16% and 61% voter participation to as low as 10%. We've had by-elections where there was just about 10% participation. And if you look at by-elections held just this year, we are between 10% and, again, 45%. Now, the impact on the voter turnout is also dependent on the issues within that community, which means we will now have to localise what makes the citizens that belong to this ward not want to go out and participate, or what encourages them to go out and participate. Obviously, where stakes are high, you see better participation by voters. Also, depending on the campaign and the candidates, you see different participation levels. So it is a combination of a number of issues when you look at voter turnout. But what is always encouraging, even with by-elections, is that your first-time voters are always voting at around 80% of those registered for that by-election for the first time. Those who are younger than the age of 25 are also most likely to go and vote, and in particular, female young persons are most likely to go vote.

5. Have you noticed any particular municipalities that have very poor participation rates?

Not necessarily. A municipality, by the way, will always know a particular ward to be having low voter participation, or very high. Some of the major urban centres in your metropolitan areas, some of their wards, always poll very low for by-elections, and some of those are 10%. But if you look at the raw figures, you may find that there's more people voting there - but because the threshold of the wards in those major urban centres is quite high, it indicates a very low voter turnout. For example, recently in eThekwini ward 103, there were just about 4000 people voting, which was way higher compared to the by-election that we had in the Northern Cape. In the Northern Cape we had about 1500 people voting. But in terms of registration figures and threshold figures for those words, eThekwini has 18 000 voters, whereas in the Northern Cape it has just about 3000 voters. So that's why it also makes a difference in terms of percentages.

6. Okay. And when you speak about localising the solutions to improve voter participation in particular communities, is there any specific example of a kind of campaign that you would create?

For instance, where we have water as a campaign issue, we are able as a Commission to encourage a discussion about water supply in that particular community, and how an elected councillor could assist that community to have a better water service in their community working with the broader municipality. We demonstrate how a show of support to a candidate who assumes the role of being elected councillor would assist that community to be represented in council and be looked after in terms of the water service. So, you take an issue that is of interest in that particular community.

7. For those who aren't maybe so well-informed about the importance of voting, we wanted to ask you how poor voter turnout generally affects South Africans democracy overall, and why voting is important.

Well, South Africa as a country chose to have a governance system of participatory democracy. But, obviously, we can't all as 50 million citizens be in Parliament and participate in the governance of the country. So we have a system where we elect representatives who are going to the legislatures on our behalf. And once they are in the legislature, they then are asked to be in the seat of governments and the state on our behalf an, therefore, they make decisions, distribute resources, in the interest of the broader South Africans. Now, it is very important that when we engage in these processes - which are elections, political party campaigns, participation in political parties, choosing leaders - we keep in mind that we are indeed making a choice of people who will look after our resources as a country, and they will distribute all of those resources in the interest of the country. Now, we must first understand that you can only be a citizen of one country in the world, and that is your country of birth, which is South Africa. And maybe some people have gone into other countries and assumed citizenship there, but it is not the same as your home country, where your family comes from and where all your ancestors come from.

So in that sense, belonging and being a citizen of a country means that you watch over how those we have elected carry the business of governance and the business of legislation. Are they continuing to do it in our interest? And if so, do you give them support? Do you want them to change? Do you want to give support to a different person? It's all the responsibility that we have, and that's why the electoral process in our participatory democracy is important. That's why our Constitution said every five years you must go for general elections in order to either renew the mandate of those in government, or change them. If the ones you picked last time are not working, you change to another one, as it is to ensure that you find a level of comfort, knowing that the country is in good hands and it is going in the right direction. Now, your absence as a citizen in a democracy kills the democracy. It undermines democracy. It weakens this democracy. If we elect leaders with a low voter turnout, then the legitimacy of those leaders and the value of those leaders remains questionable. Which is why as a Commission, you will always drive for a very high voter turnout and wish for a very high voter turnout at all times. A government that has comfortable levels of legitimacy is a government voted into office by a majority of the people, especially in a participatory democracy, like the one we have in South Africa. And for that reason, if you're worried about today and tomorrow in your country, then you should be an active role player in this constitutional democracy and its constitutional processes, in order to give effect to this participatory democracy.

8. You're speaking about the legitimacy of the people who are elected to represent us in government, and the people who are mandated with handling very precious resources. We noticed that on the IEC website, there are outlines and guidelines on how to object and make objections against a candidate in a national election and a provincial election. But what would a citizen do if they wanted to make an objection against a candidate in a local election based on the grounds of them maybe having a criminal record or having a history of misconduct?

We have constitutional provision - although, probably the context of it and how it was put into the constitution was for a different set of circumstances. When this Constitution was written in 1996, we had a number of people who had criminal records and who had served time in prison. But the reasons for all of those were for their involvement in politics and the strategy to free South Africa and make South Africa a democratic South Africa. So then the Constitution created a provision that is not specific to a particular offence, but to generally anyone with a criminal record, to say, 'If you have a criminal record, yes, you can still participate. But there must be a cooling period." A cooling period means you would have gone to prison, you would have served your time, and you would have come back into the community, and for five years you've been out of prison. In essence, you've shown that you have rehabilitated yourself into a good citizen, and people in your area are actually willing to vote you into office. So, we have that as a provision, and whoever has whatever criminal record is dealt with in terms of that constitutional provision. Now, we also have in the political space, people who have not been charged in court, but who are alleged to have been involved in some criminal activities. We also have individuals who were charged and found not guilty.

All of those people are eligible to stand for office, if you listen to my constitutional understanding of the provision about criminal records that are against a particular person. So in that sense, politically, there will always be a person with a jail term or a criminal record, or there's an allegation against this person, but we've got to apply these provisions in the constitution to decide whether they can stand. Now, that's different from how citizens view those persons. But also, when you get into this space, citizens need to be also alert to politicking on allegations on investigations underweight that some of the opposition parties tend to campaign as if it is true. So we've got to, as citizens, manage the amount of information we have about those wanting to be elected into office and decide within that whether we still put them into office, or we make them miss being elected in that general election. So as voters, we have a lot more to do with campaigns of political parties - watching, listening, participating, attending meetings, watching their adverts, listening to their presentations - in order to sift what is good for us as voters and we go out and vote. One last bit is that we are dealing with false information in the political space. We are working with various platforms in the social media space, because they use these issues of criminal allegations or investigations against each other falsely, sometimes correctly. So we are also working with these platforms saying false information cannot be peddled on those platforms as a campaign without sufficient evidence and things like those being present. So it is a very interesting space, but we do hope that our politics will continue to mature and advance, and that we have a different calibre of candidates with less focus on their characters itself, but more on what they promised to do and how they will do it.

So I would just like to confirm that you are saying that citizens should be careful about the information that is campaigned by opposing parties with regards to criminal allegations. I understand that. And of course, we need to be aware of the spread of misinformation and fake news. And as you say, there is a cooling period to make concessions for those who have possibly been involved with any sort of political struggles or incidents, who may carry a criminal record, that will allow them to still participate in elections at a later stage. But regardless of whether these allegations are true or not, is a citizen still able to make an objection against a candidate in a by-election?

In a by-election, there isn't a provision to object to a candidate who has been certified. But within the political party's internal processes, yes certainly, people are able to engage before even the official nomination of that person as a candidate. So, in a quick and easy way, I'm also encouraging that we participate in our political parties, as citizens. Because if we are not there it's the other people who are making those decisions on our behalf and proposing candidates that we would not necessarily propose. Some of the citizens like certain political parties, but they dislike a candidate nominated by the party - but they have no option of influencing who gets nominated if they are not active in political parties. But also - if I may put this in a very bad way, but for the good reasons that I say -the absence of those with the right profiles from within political parties leaves space within parties for the people with the not-so-good profiles to emerge as candidates, as leaders of the party, and all of that. So in a sense, the good people, the people with integrity, people who are respected people who have done a lot for communitie, don't shy away from being active in political parties.

9. What are some of the logistical challenges that the IEC faces with regards to special votes and home visits?

Well, logistical challenges in our space of assisting special voters are really the people being able to say to us, "Indeed, I need a special vote, and indeed I have physical challenges where I cannot go to the voting station, personally." We visit a number of homes and people say, "No, even with my disability, I want to be at the voting station and experience the environment and the mood of the voting day. My level of disability does not preclude me from doing that." We tend to get political party leaders who apply for persons who do not really require a special vote. Secondly, we obviously plan to visit homes at a particular period in time, and sometimes we'll arrive at these homes and the person who applied for the special vote is not is not at home, maybe they've gone shopping. Here and there, we get an odd case of medical emergencies. But in most cases, we get reports that so-and-so decided to go into the nearest town to do the shopping. Those things trouble our logistics and our operations. Lastly, when we get to some of these homes, we obviously require transport, scheduling of that transport, and also making sure that party agents are always with us (and they have their own challenges with transportation) because election transparency is necessary so that the outcome is not questionable. Party agents are an important part of assurance of the transparency of the electoral process. On those bases, we do get challenges. But overall, applications submitted in time for the correct candidates who require special votes, and those candidates remaining at home on the day of the special votes, that would advance our delivery and reach.

10. How does the IEC envision elections developing in the future? Are there any plans to accommodate citizens through electronic voting?

There's a number of developments that we obviously continue to research. We continue to encourage South Africans to dialogue and talk about. Amongst those conversations, is the possibility of introducing more technology in elections. You would know that we already have technologies as far as the voter roll and voter registration, and we've just introduced a new electronic gadget for the management of voters. With this gadget, we can collect your particulars such as your name and your ID number. We can also locate you with this machine, in terms of your address, and make sure you are registered in the correct ward. It also becomes an electronic voters roll on voting day. It assists us to ensure that we do not allow people to vote twice for national and provincial elections. So all of that is assisted by technology.

We are talking about two possible technologies for the future: one, we can go full steam with electronic voting. Or , alternatively we go with electronic counting, where we still have our paper ballot but after making your mark we then put it into some electronic gadget that recognizes that your mark is against political party A and then it does a quick count for us. So we're looking at those two options. But when you look at electronic voting, there's a number of technologies. There's internet-based applications, there's mobile-technology-based applications. There's also gadgets that you can bring to the voting station on the day, so that discussion is ongoing in the country. In the dialogue in South Africa and the conversations, people are discussing to what extent they can trust electronic voting. In which case, it is possible that South Africans may start with electronic counting, and as they gain trust in the use of electronic counting, they can then move on to electronic voting. So it's within our reach, and conversations that are ongoing.

Well, also introducing technologies and the level of mistrust that we picked up as we were building towards 2021, and amongst the elements of mistrust is distrusting the state entities, mistrusting the elected officials, mistrusting the political parties, and consequently, that mistrust passed on to the Electoral Commission. We've never been below 50% of trust by citizens of this country, but because parties and all our key stakeholders were as low as 20% in terms of trust levels, we had to come down because of that existing environment in the country. So we've got to rebuild. Together with all platforms of public education, media, and all opinion-makers in South Africa, we've got to rebuild the trust in our politics and our political structures.

11. How will budget cuts to the IEC affect your ability to get work done effectively?

The way we look at the budget cuts that we've been advised off, is that it's a message to say, "You had this desire for a budget. Can you revise your plans, reprioritize your plans and your approaches in order to still deliver a quality election with less budget?" Now, less budget means that maybe if you were going to appoint voter educators for 12 months, you may have to cut that contract to 10 months, and in that way you are reprioritizing and creating cost savings in order to meet the amount of budget you have. That element of reprioritization is not necessarily going to undermine the quality of our work in the activities that we have to engage in, but it would affect our desired extent of the work we have to do. We do not see that compromising the quality of the election itself, but there are budget cuts that we need to take into account. But it is very important also to note that the budget cuts were not earmarked to elections and the Electoral Commission. The budget cuts are across all publicly-funded entities, and they are presented in percentages, and the accounting officers of each institution must look at how they then allocate the costs.

12. Will the IEC face any specific challenges with regards to implementing the Political Party Funding Act and its new regulations?

We have implemented the Act. This is our first 12 months of implementing the Act, which concluded on the 31st of March 2022. So from the 1st of April, we will be on our 2nd year of implementing the Act. Obviously, we are gaining experience, noting a number of matters that we need to attend to, but also noting gaps in either the regulations or gaps in the law itself. Gaps in the regulations we can fix as the Electoral Commission, but gaps in the law will have to go back to the legislature for a debate. The experience of the 1st year... we will come back and deal with the detail of how we've experienced the Party Funding Act in its first 12 months. But overall, we are satisfied with the parties' reporting, as well as our own administration of their reports. Also, we have made allocations to parties in terms of representing political parties, and they have had an experience of how equal allocation and the equitable proportion allocation works. Obviously, we expect some feedback and some review from the parties, just to gain an insight of the experience on their part. So, the implementation of the Party Funding Act at this stage has progressed very well, and we are satisfied as the Commission.

13. When you say that you've noticed gaps in the legislation, could you maybe offer an example?

Well, there are gaps in various parts. But obviously, there's already issues on whether the 100,000 should be the test, or whether we should lower the 100,000, or if the 100,000 is too low, and puts a strain on the administration of political parties. That kind of debate cannot be held with the Commission. It actually needs to be taken to the legislature and the debate must take place there. Hopefully, when we present our annual report on Party Funding, the legislature will have an opportunity to debate that. But also, the media that is interested in Political Party Funding wanted certain disclosures to be made in public in various forms and details, which the Act does not provide for. That could be a subject matter where, even out of public interest, the media in its various forms will approach the legislature to close that gap.

14. Will the IEC be prepared to implement the changes stipulated in the Electoral Amendment Bill in time for the2024 elections, given how slow the processes have been to pass the bill?

We’ve been engaging with the Portfolio Committee a number of times, and we’re quite aware of the progress that they have been making. Also, we have engaged with the Speaker and the Minister, and we are aware of the work that they are doing there. We are also that they approached court to request an extension of the time limit that was meant to end in June, to end in December this year. In our considerations, we are saying that the intention of the judgement was that it should be implemented in time for elections 2024. So, we are impressing upon the portfolio committee, the Speaker of Parliament, as well as the Minister that this work must be concluded on time. Depending on the posture that they take and the provisions that they make, as the Commission, we will have enough time in the 12 months - beginning January next year to about December 2023 - to put whatever we need to put in place the new provisions in preparation of an election that could be somewhere between May and August in 2024.



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