OPINION: ANC’s attack on IEC is an attack on SA democracy

For some months before the local elections in August, there were fears that the Electoral Commission was becoming vulnerable, and that the institution could actually lose the ability to run elections in a way that was perceived to be free and fair. In the end, the polls they ran passed that test with flying colours. Now the ANC appears to be showing that it is unhappy with the IEC's performance. And that Gwede Mantashe, a man who really should know better, is trying to almost intimidate the institution. It's another sign the ANC is losing the plot. And another strong indication that our politics is changing fundamentally, and more quickly than most people could have imagined.

City Press has now revealed that high-ranking members of the ANC have called the IEC "an enemy" and suggested that it is trying to help opposition parties. The paper spells out how Mantashe and his deputy Jessie Duarte verbally attacked IEC deputy chair Terry Tselane in the presence of President Jacob Zuma. The party is also unhappy that the commission has tried to reduce the number of teachers it uses as electoral officers (the teachers belong to the union Sadtu, which is aligned to the ANC through Cosatu). The ANC has also raised concern that the IEC uses the services of an IT firm that has links to Israel.

The paper reveals that Tselane has written a letter to the other commissioners, explaining his concerns. It also says that he himself is now concerned for his safety, and that he has asked for personal protection.

For years, opposition parties have made the claim that the IEC was too close to the ANC. That some of its commissioners had strong links to the ruling party. It was easy for critics of these parties to claim that they were simply sore losers, that they had no prospect of winning power, and thus they were just complaining about the person who actually counted the votes.

But to go through the ANC's complaints is to be simply astounded at how weak they are. Who looks like the sore loser now?

To label the IEC as the enemy is simply stupid. Why would it be opposed to the ANC? What possible motive could it have? Consider the fact that its chair Glenton Mashinini used to be President Jacob Zuma's special advisor. Did he suddenly change his mind about Number One? Surely not. Is there some plot against the ANC? Why? By whom? It is all nonsense, of course.

This kind of aggressive comment directed to the deputy head of the IEC suggests that it was made in an emotive atmosphere. Throughout the counting process at the IEC's National Results Centre in Tshwane, it seemed pretty clear that ANC leaders there were exhausted and emotional. Duarte threw tantrums twice, on air, on two different radio stations. "Tantrum" may be a strong word to use when referring to a senior politician such as herself. But what other word is there to describe her recent behaviour? She used to be someone who spoke sense, who was interesting, who engaged in debate. Something seems to have shifted.

Mantashe was not much better. During the counting process, he confronted Tselane, in full view of journalists, complaining that the IEC had allowed the DA to publicly announce that it had won the most votes in Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB). (The DA's prediction was accurate.) This complaint from Mantashe is ludicrous. The numbers, as they come in, are publicly available. The entire process is watched by party agents. The reason that parties are able to make these predictions is that they, like everyone else, have access to the unaudited results. The commission only publishes them on their website after they have been audited. That is the right thing to do. The only way to stop parties from doing this would be to prevent their party agents from communicating with the outside world while the votes were being tallied.

Tempting, perhaps. But unlikely to be perceived as democratic.

The ANC also misses the point here. Time and time again the party's members tried to convince journalists that Athol Trollip had jumped the gun by claiming he would be mayor in NMB. That Maimane had gone too far by saying Solly Msimanga would be mayor in Tshwane. What the ANC was unable to do is to put itself in the shoes of the DA. What the DA was surely worried about was that there would be some skulduggery in the counting process. By using their own resources, they processed the information coming through independently. As anyone with the same resources and aims could do. And then, to make absolutely certain that the results could not be fixed in anyway, they announced them.

Once Maimane and Trollip had claimed victory in NMB, it would have been obvious what had happened if the ANC had tried to win the municipality through the back door.

But the real weakness in Mantashe's argument here is that his own party claimed victory in NMB first. It was deputy Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams who first said they had won the metro, based on the number of wards won. To make life a little harder for Mantashe, the Human Sciences Research Council had created a mathematical model that predicted results from just a small number of voting stations. This meant they were releasing their predictions several hours, even days, before the IEC was. Mantashe appears either not to know this was happening, or just to ignore them. Why has he not complained about their behaviour?

The ANC also appears to be worried that the commission no longer wants to use teachers as electoral officers. For years, opposition parties have complained that this allowed people who are formally committed to supporting the ANC, through Sadtu, to act in a position that demand neutrality. But, it became accepted practice because in many areas schools are the only structures available, and teachers had the skills needed to act as an electoral officer. Now, this practice is changing.

But what possible objection could the ANC have? Simply by raising the issue, it is suggesting that it wants people aligned to it to act as electoral officers. There is no other possible interpretation. Is it really saying that electoral officers should be biased? The built-in cynicism of such complaint simply takes one's breath away.

It seems that what is also being revealed here is simply a lack of understanding how our local elections work. During the counting process ANC leaders claimed they had received more votes than they did in the 2014 elections, forgetting that in these polls you voted twice in metros and thrice in other councils. This is schoolboy stuff. It may well reveal that the party's leaders have spent far too much time concentrating on the internal politics of the ANC, and not nearly enough on the actual politics of the country. That in itself may reveal a certain arrogance.

As a party accustomed to power starts to lose it in a democracy, it is probably inevitable that there is going to be tension between it and those who run the elections. It is another signal that the ANC is just unable to reform itself while Zuma is still in charge. It is lashing out, calling meetings, referring to people as "the enemy" without any foundation. But that doesn't mean the Electoral Commission is likely to kowtow to this.

First, the machinery we have for our polls just makes it very, very difficult to steal an election in the first place. The CSIR predictions, the opposition party operations, the sheer amount of attention and focus on the results process, makes this very, very difficult, if not perhaps impossible. And that's before the Electoral Courts are even brought into the fray (and we all know how the courts of the land feel about the ANC and Zuma at present).

But also, the people in the IEC are experts in elections. Before the polls, senior officials were happy to explain to journalists how the elections worked, how the counting process worked, how to examine the numbers. They have their own pride; their own self-worth is bound up in making sure the votes are counted accurately. If you worked for the IEC, in a country where so many people had fought for freedom, wouldn't you feel a massive pride in getting it right? These are people unlikely simply to give in to pressure at the drop of a hat. And, if they are under pressure, they can always make sure everyone knows that they are under pressure. It's back to the importance of transparency. There is nothing wrong with them publishing the minutes of every meeting they have with a political party. And what objection could that party have?

The ANC at the moment is unpredictable. Anything can happen. Its leaders are angry, frustrated, lashing out. Don't be surprised when they attack other institutions of our democracy. It's a sign that the party is losing ground. And yet another indication that it is not trying to win voters back by simply governing better.

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick. Go to _ www.dailymaverick.co.za for more comment and analysis._

_Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for _ Eyewitness News _ and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of SA Politics Unspun. Follow him on Twitter: _ @StephenGrootes