South Africa: Evolution of election management (1993-2009)

Extracted from: Susan Booysen & Grant Masterson 2009 "Chapter 11: South Africa" IN Denis Kadima and Susan Booysen (eds) Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa 1989-2009: 20 Years of Multiparty Democracy, EISA, Johannesburg, 396-399.

The 1993 Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) - subsequently renamed the Electoral Commission of South Africa, whilst retaining the IEC designation - was established to administer, monitor and certify the 1994 national and provincial elections [see also Independent Electoral Commission Act of 1993]. The IEC would also be responsible for promoting the free and fair conduct of the elections and the campaigning process surrounding them. In the subsequent 15 years, South Africa's electoral commission has moved through several stages in which it overcame the 1994 challenge of daunting organisational tasks (eased through the euphoria of the time), and the 1999 challenges to its relatively autonomous status. In the subsequent two elections the performance of electoral management tasks became institutionalised and the IEC adequately resourced and fully accepted in its role.

The early IEC

The 1994 elections had 16 full-time commissioners, 11 of whom were South African and five recruited from abroad. The commission was composed in such a way that its members represented a cross-section of the population. None of these commissioners had a high party-political profile. The commission was authorised to act in complete independence from any government agency. To assist the commission, the Act provided for a large bureaucracy. This included three directorates for administration, monitoring and adjudication of the polls. The monitoring directorate coordinated the activities of monitors and observers (local and international) and investigated any infringements of the electoral code of conduct. The adjudication secretariat coordinated the work of election tribunals, and the Electoral Court. The IEC was funded through a special parliamentary allocation for the 1994 elections, and the commission was dissolved at the conclusion of its work near the end of 1994.

Establishment and operation of the permanent Electoral Commission

The Electoral Commissions Act of 1996 established the new IEC as a permanent body responsible for "strengthening constitutional democracy and promoting democratic electoral processes". The Commission assumed the same title as its predecessor, the IEC, and inherited its logo and many of its managers. The commission's reformulation saw the appointment of five commissioners, one of whom would be a judge. Commissioners are nominated by a representative all-party committee in the National Assembly. This committee must consider eight candidates chosen by a panel chaired by the President of the Constitutional Court and composed of candidates from the Human Rights Commission, the Gender Commission and the Public Protector. The committee's recommendations are assessed and ultimately ratified by a majority vote in the National Assembly. By 1996 it was also formally required that at the time of a candidate's appointment to the IEC the person should not have a high political profile. With the IEC having been established as a permanent body since 1997, the same five commission members led the IEC into the April 2004 national and provincial elections. (The five members of the commission are elected for a period of seven years.) The other members of the commission at the time, and for a substantial subsequent period, included Brigalia Bam (former Secretary General of the South African Council of Churches, SACC), Herbert Vilakazi (sociologist and director of the Council for African Thought), Fanie van der Merwe (legal adviser in the then Department of Provincial Affairs and Constitutional Development), and Thoko Mpumlwana (former teacher and administrator in the SACC). At the time of the 2009 election, the commissioners were Bam, Mpumlwana, Van der Merwe, Mr Terry Tselane and Judge Herbert Qedusizi Msimang.

Although legislation accorded the IEC the responsibility for adjudicating disputes, the adjudication and monitoring divisions of the previous IEC fell away by 1997. The IEC now received other tasks and responsibilities, including the:

  • compilation of a voters' roll;
  • demarcation of wards for local government (In 1998, the responsibility for the demarcation of local government councils was transferred to the newly legislated Municipal Demarcation Board; the board was obliged to consult with the IEC on its deliberations);
  • review of legislation; and
  • conduct of large-scale voter education.

From 1996 until 1999, the IEC employed a small number of permanent staff (250 plus), with the intention of recruiting volunteers and temporary staff such as Local Election Officers (LEOs) in peak periods such as for registration drives and the balloting process. The commission, when it convened, was chaired by Judge Johann Kriegler. Initially there were tensions between the IEC and the Department of Home Affairs, which felt that the IEC's role should be circumscribed to monitoring and technical assistance (with a small support staff only for the Commission). However, the legislation passed in 1996 gave the IEC a far more substantial role in the administration of elections. This tussle between the IEC and Home Affairs had its roots in the pre-1994 period, when elections under the apartheid regime were conducted through the Department of Home Affairs. The ongoing dispute between the two bodies impacted on preparations for South Africa's 1999 elections. The most significant impact concerned the IEC's financial status, with budgets constantly being revised, and the IEC's mandate changing on a regular basis without input from the commission into these decisions. In March 1998, the IEC was informed that it would be responsible for the preparation of a voters' roll, and the administration of the 1999 national elections. It would have a budgetary allocation of R500 million (US$86 million), later increased to R600 million (US$103.6 million), which translated into approximately two-thirds of the cost of the 1994 elections.

In January 1999, Kriegler resigned as IEC chairperson, citing dissatisfaction with the attempts by Home Affairs to subvert the autonomy of the IEC. Bam became the next chairperson, whilst Judge Ismail Hussein came in to satisfy the requirement that a member of the commission be a judge. The national IEC bureaucracy, from its offices at Election House in Pretoria, and a permanent staff of 320 in the national offices, thus prepared for the 1999 elections. An additional 160 000 temporary staff members were trained on the electoral procedures for the 1999 elections in the month prior to the 2 June 1999 polling date.

The majority of these temporary staff members were teachers and municipal administrators, including town clerks. The municipal officials were already in the employ of the government, and electoral duties were simply appended to their existing responsibilities as civil servants. In addition to these LEOs, the IEC also appointed a Provincial Electoral Officer (PEO) for each of South Africa's nine provinces.

In 2004, the IEC found the process of administering the elections much smoother than it had been for the 1999 elections, primarily due to the commission's retention of both permanent and temporary election staff, and an easier budgetary allocation process. Municipal electoral officers recruited volunteers to provide assistance at close to 17 000 voting stations across the country. A total of 215 000 volunteers were recruited.

The IEC's responsibilities for the 2004 and 2009 elections remained largely the same as in 1999, with its primary responsibilities focused on the administration of the voter registration process, the training of temporary election staff and in particular electoral officers, the management of the political parties' processes of participation, and liaising with and coordinating local and international observers and monitors. Electoral and voter education programmes were conducted primarily by civil society organisations, although the IEC also facilitated and conducted substantial programmes. The IEC announced the formal Election 2009 timetable in late February 2009. It again employed more than 200 000 temporary staff to manage the balloting processes. The commission was widely lauded for the management of the 2009 election. Several areas for future improvement were highlighted.