Is something rotten in the state? - News24

15 August 2021 - Postponing October’s local government elections can simply not be allowed to happen, as it would signify that our Constitution has been broken, depriving South Africans of their right to regular elections.

Marius Roodt 

Postponing October’s local government elections can simply not be allowed to happen, as it would signify that our Constitution has been broken, depriving South Africans of their right to regular elections.

The move by the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) to postpone the elections, which are scheduled for October 27, follows a report from an inquiry headed by former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke into whether South Africa could hold a free and fair election while Covid-19 remained a threat.

The report’s recommendation, and the IEC’s decision to adopt it, are puzzling. Medical experts told the commission that South Africa would probably be experiencing a period of fairly low Covid-19 transmission in October if the virus continued to behave as it had previously.
The Moseneke report recommended that the election be postponed.

The IEC adopted the recommendation and has filed an urgent application to the Constitutional Court to allow for the election postponement, with the date of the hearing set for Friday.

The report’s recommendation, and the IEC’s decision to adopt it, are puzzling. Medical experts told the commission that South Africa would probably be experiencing a period of fairly low Covid-19 transmission in October if the virus continued to behave as it had previously.

The commission nevertheless recommended a postponement to February. This was despite there being no consensus among the medical experts who appeared before it on whether October or February would be a safer time to hold the election.

At the same time – and more importantly – there is simply no constitutional mechanism to allow for an election postponement. According to the Constitution, elections for our legislative bodies (whether these be Parliament, the nine provincial legislatures or our various municipal councils) must occur no more than 90 days after the expiry of a term, with terms lasting no longer than five years. As the last municipal election was held on August 3 2016, the terms of the municipal councils already expired on August 3, so the election must be held no later than November 1.

For an election to be postponed beyond the five years and three months, our democracy’s founding document would have to be amended – and there is simply no time to do so. In addition, amending the Constitution to allow for an election postponement is not desirable per se, because it sets a dangerous precedent.

Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic is cause for concern. According to official numbers, more than 75 000 South Africans have succumbed to the virus, with the real number probably much higher. Nevertheless, we cannot allow our democracy to be subverted due to concerns over the virus.

Many countries around the world have shown that it is possible to hold free and fair elections while taking precautions with regard to Covid-19. Moreover, South Africans are going grocery shopping and queuing in banks, at taxi ranks and at SA Social Security Agency offices, and did so even during the third wave.

We can also explore innovative solutions to ensure that voting stations are not too crowded, such as staggering the election geographically and over time, to protect voters and election officials.

Political parties can be equally innovative in their campaigning by using online methods and ensuring that rallies are held outside, where the risk of Covid-19 transmission is lower.

The fact is that, if the election can be postponed for one type of emergency, then there is no telling what other reasons could be put forward for such action to be taken again. The ANC has already said that the election should be postponed even further – to April.

The party initially wanted the election to take place on the date originally set for it, so why is it suddenly in favour of a postponement?

It may well be that it is wary of facing voters following its inept handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as government’s tepid response to the recent riots that swept through KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

The constant revelations of corruption in the party (not helped by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s unconvincing appearance before the Zondo commission) could also be making it concerned about being given a bloody nose at the polls when South Africans do vote.

In addition, questions must be raised about why the IEC said as far as back as May that it was ready to hold the elections in October, but is now approaching the courts to allow a postponement.

As Hamlet observed in Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

The Institute of Race Relations will be acting as a friend of the court to ensure that the democratic rights of South Africans are protected. The institute will also recommend that, if the election date of October 27 simply cannot be met, then the election should be held at different times in different provinces to account for differences in Covid-19 infection rates.

There is a precedent for this, with the first post-apartheid local government elections being held in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape at different times from the rest of the country.

Roodt is a writer and senior analyst at the SA Institute of Race Relations

https://www.news24.com/citypress/voices/is-something-rotten-in-the-state-20210814

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