Will local, national and provincial elections be merged?

ANTHONY BUTLER: Election unlikely to be postponed unless Malema gets his way

 BL PREMIUM

21 JANUARY 2021

Since the middle of 2020 some members of the ANC have been peddling specious arguments to justify a possible postponement of the scheduled 2021 local government elections.

SA has a constitutionally prescribed five-year term for municipal councils, and a requirement that elections are held within 90 days of the expiry of current terms. This means elections must be held between August 4 and November 1 2021.

At first sight, there is little reason to change this schedule. The Municipal Demarcation Board has to finalise a few minor ward boundary changes. Voter address records, as always, remain incomplete. A new “voter management device” to deter fraud has yet to be rolled out. Covid also makes registration hard. But by-elections were held successfully last year, and well-ventilated and socially distanced voter stations are not beyond the capabilities of the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC).

Yet some ANC MPs, and the EFF, have shifted focus to the campaign. The EFF argues campaigning is incompatible with social distancing, and that elections are “super-spreader events”. The IEC is now wavering, recently proposing that only “level 1” Covid restrictions are compatible with a “free and fair” election.

Such arguments, if sincere, might justify adjusting the election date within its current window, or perhaps pushing it back by weeks. They certainly cannot justify postponing the elections for three years, or combining them with national polls in 2024.

The ANC still lacks a credible case. In July, ANC-friendly electoral commissioner Janet Love guided the home affairs portfolio committee that it should prepare a list of the “pros and cons” of merging local elections with national and provincial polls.

Falling back on the intellectual resources of the committee, however, has not gone well. The cogitation of the ANC, combined with the superior logic of the EFF, has resulted in only one concrete argument: the R1.6bn cost of each election is prohibitive in these times of scarce resources.

This is laughable in the context of overall government spending. A parastatal bailout that provides jobs, contracts and free flights for the elite is apparently more worthy of funds than a democratic election.

If a policy decision is taken to merge elections nonetheless, the alignment of time frames will require a constitutional amendment. After all, either councillors will remain in office to 2024, or a newly elected 2021 cohort will have to leave office at the same date. To accomplish this, it would seem an informal pact has been struck to the perceived mutual advantage of the EFF and a faction of the ANC.

Both parties are rightly suffering from popularity slumps. On the EFF side, in addition, party leader Julius Malema’s yearning to strike a deal with the ANC in exchange for personal power is becoming urgent, as middle age and the boredom of opposition increasingly weigh on his ego. The ANC is likely to drop below 50% in 2024, and this provides a point of maximum leverage for a “necessary coalition partner”.

Inside the ANC, the debate is more nuanced. The liberation movement has long been debilitated by the need to run candidate selection processes twice every five years. ANC incumbents in many municipalities meanwhile fear for their jobs, and for their immediate financial wellbeing. Some provincial barons believe money is to be made from further disarray in the metros: a suspension of local elections will collapse the legitimacy of many councils, engender chaos and so provide grounds for ANC scavengers to put them under administration.

Much will turn on President Cyril Ramaphosa. He surely fears that disastrous local election results could allow treasurer-general Paul Mashatile to remove him from the ANC presidency, in a relatively quiet putsch, in December 2022. He is more likely, however, to veto a postponement of elections as a matter of principle.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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