IEC vigilance will be critical in 2014

In 1994 celebrated photographer David Goldblatt took a poignant series of photographs of the 'first voters'. Many of them were old and had waited their entire lives to taste freedom.

Yet they had no forms of identity and so were identified by numbers scribbled on a chalkboard. The photographs are reminders of the challenges of those first elections.

We have come a long way and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has become very efficient at 'doing elections', so much so that we often take its work for granted. Yet, these are not days to be complacent.

In September we saw the IEC's credibility being called into question when it disqualified six independent candidates in the bitterly contested Tlokwe municipality by-election. The Electoral Court overturned the decision and ordered that the IEC investigate why its official disqualified the candidates when they met the criteria for nomination. In addition, a cloud hangs over IEC chairperson Pansy Tlakula surrounding the conflict of interest finding by the Public Protector.

The 2014 elections will be highly contested. Already we have seen the gloves come off in the Western Cape and 'service delivery' protests have been ratcheted up across the country.

We have also entered a period in which the ANC itself seems to have become more and more insecure in power. The recent furore over the Westville school's art examination entries which depicted satirical pictures of ANC leaders indicates that. Yet, it is the 'born frees' whom everyone has been focusing on, namely those who are between 18 and 21 years old and voting for the first time in 2014. There are 3 million of them. The IEC has been on its registration drive and according to its figures, 75% of those who registered in the latest drive were under the age of 30.

Registration is one thing, voter turn-out quite another. It is for this reason that political parties will target youth voters aggressively. Of course this is not a homogenous group and is as divided by race and class as any other group, yet it also views the world quite differently and not exclusively - or even at all - through the lens of 'the struggle' against apartheid.

What will be crucial is that the IEC monitor these elections freely and fairly, that there are no occurrences of intimidation as there were in Bekkersdal and a few other areas during this past weekend's registration process. It will also need to show its independent mettle where there are instances as in 2009 where food parcels were distributed to voters and state resources abused in so doing. That old chestnut of political donations will also no doubt play an important role. The DA has said it will spare no expense in its bid for Gauteng. The ANC itself has long been shrewd in redirecting funds for election purposes.

All these factors influence voters - for better or worse. 2014 sees the celebration of 20 years of our democracy. There will be much to contest and much to gain.

The IEC's vigilance will be more needed than ever.

Judith February is executive director: Democracy and Governance at the HSRC. The views expressed are her own.