Reflections on the state of Electoral Democracy in South Africa address by Mr Bantu Holomisa, MP - UDM President at the 10th Anniversary Conference of the Independent Electoral Commission (10 October 2007)
Since the attainment of our freedom we have held three national, provincial and local government elections. This is a sign that South Africans still respect the Constitution because we drafted it on our own. We thank therefore the IEC for hosting this workshop with a view to reflect on whether we are still on track with the process of democratisation in our country.
As political parties we need to thank civil society for their contributions at this conference and over the past decade in general. You have helped to sustain and promote democracy.
Since there will be no resolutions taken at this conference, I would strongly recommend that as political parties present here, we need to have our own session to concretize some of the debates here, with a view to formally table them in the relevant forums. Those which require the attention of Parliament, those which need the attention of the IEC, those that require public campaigns, and those that require legal challenges, especially if certain institutions do want to listen to our concerns. We need to wake up as political parties.
At the core of the democratic impulse of every person are two related needs: choice and voice. In other words, people desire alternatives in order to choose what best suits them, and people want to be heard, want their needs and aspirations acknowledged.
Our country's Constitution creates the space for these two needs to be fulfilled with the provision for multi-party democracy and many other related mechanisms and institutions.
However, we cannot sit here and pretend that the voices we have heard from various sectors have had their concerns addressed adequately.
While our Constitution is widely respected some of the decisions taken by Government has negated or run contrary to the expressed needs of the people.
Many at this conference can bear witness to the fact that many concerned South Africans have noted with trepidation that vital decisions could be taken without consultation and foisted upon the country without warning. This trend can be traced back to as early as 1997, when for instance the GEAR policy was introduced without the least bit of debate and hundreds of thousands of jobs were destroyed.
It was presented as a fait accompli and the RDP was ditched, even though it had been popularly endorsed and had been the electoral mandate given to the ANC in 1994. GEAR was just the first in a string of such vital decisions with massive ramifications that were introduced in this manner. The same principle was applied with other sensitive or emotional issues, which as a public representative you are confronted about in your constituency and people want to know: "Who did you consult when you made these laws?"
Indeed some of you from civil society who are present here, have shouted in vain on a number of issues, and have not been listened to.
It was the same with the Arms Deal, when the nation questioned whether we shouldn't invest more on social development instead of weapons of war. But today, as we all know, the Arms Deal continues to eat away at the body politic of this country like a cancerous tumour.
In the last two days we have been trying to read the mind of a voter. What does a voter want when he/she goes to vote? We talked about elections and the legitimate expectation of voters that their vote will improve their lot. Despite all the problematic areas, South Africa has soldiered on. There is an improvement which we can track.
While we appreciate the progress made thus far, the challenge facing us is to look how we can strengthen the institutions of our democracy, such as the IEC. We have observed how Kader Asmal has evaluated many of these vital democratic institutions. Whilst we may disagree here and there on detail, we can all agree that we need to find solutions to some of the inherent defects in these institutions or in the general legal framework.
As we continue to develop our democracy, the delegates here, if I've understood them well, do understand that:
All the delegates that have been attending this conference have taken note of what we debated here. The question is whether there is a need for improvement at the IEC as institution or at legislative level: how do we strengthen this very institution that hosted this conference in order to promote electoral democracy in our country?
In doing so we may have to ask ourselves a question: Is our IEC really independent? To the UDM's understanding an Independent Electoral Commission
Currently all of us seated here know that the IEC cannot be called independent because it remains institutionally and financially dependent upon Government. As long as our IEC is embedded in a Government Department and where legal provisions connect it closely to Government in the performance of its functions, it indeed will continue to be a challenge for our IEC to be able to act independent to the wishes of Government.
Yes, one day we would like to see an IEC which can be empowered to independently announce the date for elections, so that preparations are done properly in advance, unlike the current situation in the country. We need to develop a legal framework that would allow the IEC not be at the mercy of a Minister of Finance or Home Affairs when it comes to funding. Such as when the IEC calls for the improvement of its infrastructure to avoid rigging or enhance electoral processes, but the relevant Government Ministers simply drag their feet and frustrate the institution.
As stakeholders in the IEC we need to look at the composition of the IEC Board and asked whether it is fairly constituted. We need to ask why it is that only Parliament, where the ruling party dominates, has a say about the composition of the IEC leadership. Indeed why did other democratic countries avoid leaving this decision exclusively to Parliament? Did they perhaps not fear that the majority in that parliament would automatically come up with their own favourites?
Delegates at this conference spoke about the need for transparency; it is true, we need that. A fully representative IEC of all the stakeholders, would definitely allow us to know which IT company is controlling our elections. Is it a genuine company or an intelligence front company or a company belonging to a certain political party? What is the role of the intelligence agencies in our elections? What mechanisms are used to screen those companies? If it is true that the National Intelligence Agency can poke their nose into the issuing of tenders to run our elections, what guarantees that they don't issue those tenders to their front companies? And who authorized the National Intelligence Agency to get involved in that in the first instance? Can somebody then claim that the IEC is independent or not embedded with Government institutions?
The other challenge which currently faces us with regards to the IEC is that it still remains vulnerable to political manipulations that may compromise its independence. The case in point is the integration of municipal electoral officials into political bodies in the form of partisan municipalities thus potentially compromising their independence. Also at administrative level we must question the wisdom of COSATU members being used as electoral officials throughout the electoral process, when COSATU is unashamedly aligned to a political party contesting elections.
A related issue on the question of free and fair electoral processes is the role played by the Public Broadcaster. On the one hand, we must praise the good work of the SABC, particularly radio services, that reach communities in their languages. There are, however, a few zealous elements that seem to misunderstand the role of a public broadcaster, especially SABC TV channels, and seek to reduce it into a mouthpiece of the ruling party. They may have ruined the good reputation of a public broadcaster in their expediency to satisfy short-term narrow and often personal goals. The would-be new SABC Board should not underestimate the desire of South Africans for an open debate on the issues facing the country and the continent. Let them free the airwaves.
Like we did on the question of the floor-crossing legislation, the affected political parties and other stakeholders must take the lead, even if we need to go to the highest court in the land, to have the current policy reviewed.
There is no way that it can be fair that it is only the ruling party that receives exclusive live coverage on SABC television, as well as almost daily TV news coverage, whilst other parties are not shown or receive radically less coverage. The same could be said about the SABC TV's partisan behaviour when they cover party anniversaries, manifesto launches and election closing rallies. When other political parties request the same treatment from the SABC they are asked silly questions by the deployed comrades, such as: "Is it newsworthy?"
The call for electoral review is supported by the UDM on the basis that it will enhance high levels of accountability and participation of the electorate. In the same vein, we fully support that the public should fund our democracy, so as to avoid our politics being mortgaged either to business, wealthy individuals and companies, or outside governments or institutions which might influence our Government policy. Obviously this necessitates that there should be proper legislation for party funding, including regulations on how private business and unions support political parties.
All we are asking for is for the levelling of the playing field.