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Judith February: Tlakula compromises your vote

With Nkandla dominating the news it is quite easy to forget the furore surrounding the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) chairperson, Pansy Tlakula.

Has the tide turned against her? In a radio interview on Wednesday, deputy chairperson Terry Tselane admitted that the IEC was in a 'very stressful' position as regards the findings of a conflict of interest against Tlakula. In addition, Tselane, far from coming to Tlakula's defence said the following, "She understands the implications of the kinds of things being said both in the media and in other forums (sic), she'll be able to make her decision based on what she believes is best for the country". Not quite a ringing endorsement, though Tselane himself is admittedly also in a tricky position and unable to comment publicly about his boss.

This week opposition parties also called for Tlakula to resign, and the United Democratic Front's Bantu Holomisa, who has doggedly been fighting this issue, has said that should Tlakula not resign within seven days, legal steps will be taken. The ANC was never going to call for Tlakula's resignation, but it is somewhat surprising, as Holomisa pointed out, that the Democratic Alliance (DA) has not been keen to pick up the cudgels on this one. Be that as it may, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have been vocal on the issue, questioning whether the elections will be free and fair given Tlakula's conflict of interest involving a high-ranking official of the ruling party. Julius Malema raised questions regarding the printing of ballot papers and whether the IEC can truly be relied upon to deliver free and fair elections.

The recently publicised PwC report confirms the Public Protector's main findings last year that Tlakula was guilty of maladministration and misconduct over the decision to purchase new offices to the value of R320 million from property developer Abland. Both reports found that Tlakula did not give guidance or formally inform various persons what was expected of them in the procurement process, and that the process that was then followed breached the requirements of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) and Treasury regulations. In addition, there were numerous errors made in the process that resulted in Abland being favoured at the expense of other bidders.

It is most unfortunate that there is a whiff of such impropriety surrounding the IEC, long regarded as one of the foremost democratic institutions in South Africa. Tlakula herself has been praised for her role in providing leadership to the IEC.

The Public Protector's report recommends that President Zuma take action against Tlakula, but Tlakula herself has contested the findings and is taking the Public Protector's report on review. In the meantime, however, calls for her resignation are growing. The question, of course, is whether all this does not simply amount to a hill of beans? Where is the rub here?

The IEC has generally been regarded as South Africa's premier democratic institution and has successfully driven elections legitimately in the post-apartheid era. Tlakula's predecessor, Brigalia Bam, led with an unrivalled and quiet dignity. Tlakula was simply following in Bam's formidable footsteps. So, at a very basic level, the damning findings of conflicts of interest against Tlakula are disappointing, to say the least, and our trust in the IEC chairperson has, of necessity, diminished. As someone with legal training, surely Tlakula cannot claim ignorance of the rules regarding procurement and conflicts of interest? Two reports have now found her conduct wanting and so one has to wonder what her review will be based upon? Having said that, the President has not acted against Tlakula and there appears to be no indication that he will, especially since the matter is under review. This raises the spectre of the chair of our electoral commission believing that she is in some way 'beholden' to the president of the country and the majority party.

While no one doubts that the IEC is ready for these elections and that all the resources will be put into ensuring free and fair elections, there may be a moment of contestation in a particular province. What happens then? Can we trust that Tlakula will do the right thing and not find in favour of the political masters who protect her by their silence? In politics and elections, the perception of a lack of total independence can have far-reaching consequences. Our country, already so divided by our political differences, can ill-afford a compromised chairperson of the IEC.

If, as Tselane says, Tlakula understands the implications of conflicts of interest, she will indeed do what is best for South Africa and step down. That would give her the space to argue the Public Protector's report on review while ensuring that our electoral process and the IEC remain free of allegations of bias.

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).