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JUDITH FEBRUARY: No election in the world is perfect

OPINION

ANC party chairman Gwede Mantashe seemed in no mood for trifles as he was hauled over for an interview at the Tshwane Results Operating Centre (ROC) on Thursday evening.

Mantashe - often blustery - had a clear message about the capabilities of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) as claims of multiple voting and not-so indelible ink were flying around loosely.

Earlier, 15 small parties had held what seemed to be an impromptu press conference on the floor of the ROC bemoaning these elections as not ‘free and fair’ (let’s hold onto our hats for a lot more talk of ‘free and fair’ in the next few days). The disgruntled group was led by Mzwanele Manyi of the African Transformation Movement (ATM), who has never truly covered himself in glory since his embarrassing 2010 comment about the ‘oversupply of coloured people’ in the Western Cape. He was flanked by the vocal Phakamile Hlubi-Majola of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party who half-lectured the media on their role at the ROC. The parties had a litany of complaints, including unequal media coverage, their complaints being overlooked by the IEC, and so it went on. They have now threatened legal action against the IEC and ‘sit-ins’.

What a lot of showboating it was.

All indications are that this election has been particularly tough on smaller parties (a separate discussion will no doubt be had about the Freedom Front Plus). So one could not help but draw the conclusion that this was a disruptive attempt at relevance. The problem for Manyi, Hlubi-Majola and the likes of the Land Party, the BLF and ACM is that the voters have rejected their incoherent policies and haphazard attempts to garner votes. Elections can be brutal that way.

When IEC Commissioner Janet Love spoke to the public broadcaster as early claims of multiple voting arose, she was firm and fair, as was IEC Western Cape head of elections Courtney Sampson. Their line was simple - if you have specific evidence, bring it. The IEC cannot investigate social media speculation.

As it happens, thus far 20 people have been arrested.

In addition, the IEC has instituted an audit to check results and Chief Electoral Officer Sy Mamabolo has said that no result would be released until the IEC was absolutely sure of its integrity.

The Democratic Alliance had also lodged complaints, but party chair James Selfe was careful when asked about challenging the actual result. Selfe has been around long enough to understand what the import of that might be.

So it was left to Mantashe to make the important point about IEC processes. What these smaller parties do not seem to fathom is that Party Liaison Committees (PLC) exists to "allow for consultation and co-operation between (the IEC) and the registered parties concerned on all electoral matters, aimed at the delivery of free and fair elections".

Mantashe went on to say that he had no "reason to question the professionalism of the IEC". But probably the most important point he made was when he emphatically said of the arrests, "We don’t need to make it our issue here. Let’s watch the results coming in, deal with them and... sit here and continue working".

And then expressed his concern about "reckless handling of elections leading to wars". "If we want to go that route, it is a choice we are making. If there are problems, let’s deal with them and the IEC must lead on that".

Yes, disruption is a choice. War is a choice.

Mantashe was not blustering this time but underlining an important point. We live in a constitutional democracy and the IEC is an independent Chapter 9 institution, protected as such. It runs elections, not political parties.

Thus far it has been very careful to follow its own processes and stay calm in the face of some wild criticism on social media. Bizarrely, some like the UDM’s Bantu Holomisa have claimed these elections were ‘rigged’. Holomisa should know better than to make such an irresponsible statement. Words matter and these words were inflammatory, to say the least. They also seem informed by bitterness at what seems to be the demise of the UDM. Holomisa should withdraw these words until he presents compelling evidence of vote rigging to the public.

What do we know? We know that there have been allegations of individuals voting twice and that in some cases the indelible ink could be washed off. The latest word from the IEC is, however, that there is no evidence of double voting despite the arrests. The IEC audit will provide information regarding the depth of the problem. One would, however, be surprised if there had been deviation/fraud and this had been ‘material’ because that would literally mean an orchestrated attempt by tens of thousands to vote many times. And therein lies the rub - what was the material impact on the actual result?

No election in the world is perfect whether paper-based or electronic. One need only look at the 2016 US election to see that this is the case - from long queues to equipment failure - it was all there. In addition, the 2000 Florida recount famously gave us a whole new lexicon on ‘hanging chads’.

The challenge, however, is what to do about things when they go wrong? It is then crucial that an electoral commission act in a manner consistent with its own laws, rules and our Constitution. In addition, that it does so in a transparent manner and communicates effectively with citizens.

Nothing thus far indicates an IEC cover-up or a slight on the integrity of those who have addressed the country on the issue.

The IEC will make a determination regarding double voting. We need to trust them to do the job and to deal with the challenges openly and with the appropriate rigour. And we need to hold them to account on this.

Post-elections there will be plenty of time for reflection and action. We will need to introspect on the role of the IEC and its constraints. It is clear that the IEC faces challenges given the loss of institutional memory in recent years and a smaller budget given the constraints facing the fiscus.

And so we see yet again that state capture has a price in so many ways. State capture also created an environment in which institutions have had to be more resilient than usual to deal with concomitant pressures. We thus need to have a serious discussion about how we all protect and defend what remains a fine institution. There must be a better allocation of resources ahead of the local government elections and a greater focus on electronic systems to be sure we protect the integrity of every vote.

We cannot take our democratic institutions for granted. They need to be undergirded by the support of the public who rightly should also hold them to account.

But we should do so with due care. Inflammatory rhetoric will not help us.

Elections are crucial to the life and legitimacy of any democracy. As Mantashe warns us, wars have been started because of electoral rigging and not following processes. There are plenty of grim reminders of that on this continent.

The political neophytes who were grandstanding at the ROC on Thursday evening would do well to focus their minds on that and on dealing constructively and deliberately with the challenges of this and future elections.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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