In a historic first for democratic South Africa, the country is set to have 96 by-elections in a single day, to fill a host of councillor vacancies less than a year before the next local government elections.
A backlog in outstanding by-elections was caused by the declaration of the state of disaster and the implementation of the national lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, prompting a postponement of all by-elections since March 2020.
The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) plans to clear this backlog by holding simultaneous nationwide by-elections on 11 November. The 96 ward by-elections would take place in 56 municipalities.
IEC Chairperson Glen Mashinini said: “The decision by the Commission to approach the Electoral Court for postponements of by-elections since March was not taken lightly. But given the risk to human life and restriction of political activity the Commission had no choice but to act responsibly and postpone the by-elections. Now that circumstances have improved, we are ready to give voters their political voice back.”
The vacancies included those that emerged from dissolution of two councils in the Northern Cape, where Proportional Represenatation (PR) candidates must also be elected after 9 PR seats in Phokwane and 3 PR seats in Renosterberg became vacant.
The by-elections are scheduled in all nine provinces across 461 voting districts and affect over 600,000 registered voters.
According to IEC chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo the by-elections would be held under strict new Covid-19 protocols, aimed at ensuring the safety of voters, election staff, party agents, observers, and other stakeholders. These include implementing strict social distancing practices outside and inside voting stations, along with the use of hand sanitisers as voters enter and exit voting stations.
“Voters, election staff and all those entering the voting station will be required to wear a mask at all times. Voters are also encouraged to bring their own pens to mark their ballot papers although pens will be provided and sanitized after each use,” Mamabolo said.
He expressed its confidence that the measures would allow for free and fair elections to proceed in a safe environment. Prior to the polls being held, there would be education programmes teach voters in the affected wards about the new safety protocols. Similarly, additional training for elections staff is be done, to familiarise them with the new protocols and processes.
Ordinarily, by-elections were not held during the final six months leading to municipal elections, but the current situation has been forced by the pandemic.
This means that ward polls would have to occur until May 2021.
“However, holding all outstanding by-elections together on one day will help the Electoral Commission and political parties to focus their attention and energies on one day, and to clear the backlog in one go,” Mamabolo said.
By-elections are usually grouped together where feasible, to allow for efficiencies and better coordination. In the lead up to the by-elections on 11 November, the Electoral Commission will engage with key stakeholders, including political parties through the national, provincial, and municipal party liaison committee structures, to consult them on the new practices.
Mashinini said despite the move to Level 1 enabling the holding of elections, it was important to remain vigilant and to conform to health protocols by all involved.
“We remain ever hopeful that a cure will be found soon. But we cannot delay political rights indefinitely, and we need to be ready to conduct municipal elections between August and November next year.
“The by-elections on 11 November will give us all an opportunity to work together to test and if necessary to refine our safeguards. It is within all of us as South African citizens to positively participate in measures to combat the further spread of coronavirus, especially during voting,” Mashinini said.