Protests show up IEC demarcation board

LOCAL government is in a pickle. It faces not only the important job of getting "back to basics" ensuring that service delivery takes place at an acceptable level in municipalities across the country but also transitioning to a period of new leadership and in several instances new boundaries after August’s local government elections.

To make matters worse serious questions are being raised about the institutions that support local government’s very make-up — the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) and the Municipal Demarcation Board.

There is little doubt that the Constitutional Court hearings have thrown up serious questions about the competence of the IEC in carrying out the requirements of the 2003 Electoral Act. Judges despite the profound implications of questioning preparedness for forthcoming elections were clearly bemused by the commission’s failure to verify addresses on the voters roll when the imperative to do this was made clear by legislation 13 years ago.

One might also ponder why it is that the emerging crisis faced by the Chapter 9 institution has been brought to light by a handful of independent ward councillor candidates in Tlokwe rather than Parliament. Stakeholders in the interests of ensuring that August’s elections proceed are scrambling to ensure that a workable solution is in place within the next 100 days.

The legal crisis comes during the violence in Vuwani Limpopo where residents have argued that they were inadequately consulted by the Municipal Demarcation Board — another major local government player — in the creation of a new municipality with Malamulele.

Together the crises represent serious headaches for the country and question not for the first time the competence and capacity of local government institutions to carry out work critical to the functioning of the sector.

With Vuwani declared a disaster area in the wake of 21 torched and vandalised schools the implications of unhappiness with boundary delimitations are all too clear. Although opposition to the proposed Malamulele-Vuwani merger surfaced last year escalating last month when voter registration was compromised few could have expected it to spiral out of control after the community’s failed court challenge.

On service-delivery indicators alone Vuwani might not have been considered a likely flash point for violent objection to new boundaries given that delivery records are similar in the Makhado municipality (under which Vuwani currently falls) and the Thulamela municipality (in which Malamulele is currently found) are similar.

In fact Makhado lags Thulamela on several indicators including the preparation of municipal plans and budgets and municipal occupancy rates. Looking at Statistics SA (StatsSA) Census 2011 data both municipalities are similarly impoverished with high levels of unemployment and underdevelopment.

Compounding matters Vuwani never registered service delivery protests before the demarcation dispute and for this reason appeared to be a relatively cohesive community — possibly this itself is a reason why the community resisted change.

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SO WHY are residents up in arms against the proposed change?

First those on the ground have pointed to logistical concerns with the headquarters of the new municipality expected to be about 100km away.

The same issue was a bone of contention for the Malamulele community during protest activity last year but careful engagement reassured residents that municipal satellite offices would be able to provide the necessary service.

Similar reassurances have clearly been left wanting in Vuwani. The second concern noted by numerous commentators is the role of tribal identities and perceptions and fears of exclusion and marginalisation of Vuwani’s Venda speakers by Shangaans.

While such concerns are complex experience in Malamulele last year demonstrated that they can be resolved through communication with all groups and negotiation. Possibly a fact that is missed in debates regarding these Limpopo communities is their vast size. While they may be rural we estimate that there are about 630000 residents in the Thulamela and 522000 in the Makhado local municipalities. These numbers make engagement not only all the more complex but also all the more necessary.

Crucial to assuaging both logistical concerns and sensitivities concerning traditional leadership is consultation and the Municipal Demarcation Board is going to need to explain exactly which processes took place in the Vuwani community and why they failed.

Alongside scrutiny of the board is the performance of the IEC. Failed Tlokwe by-elections in which it was alleged that vote-rigging (the bussing-in of voters between wards) took place due to a lack of verification of voters’ addresses has threatened to throw the country into a constitutional crisis. It has emerged that the IEC has failed to exercise its responsibility to verify all voters’ addresses.

While counsel for the IEC has argued that this would be possible only by 2020 with considerably more resources at hand the country is in a precarious balance — trying to ensure that local government polls proceed within an August cut-off period without disenfranchising millions of voters without formal addresses while also safeguarding against vote-rigging. While the risk of vote-rigging (by shifting voters from one ward to another ward) may not be as serious in local elections as in a by-election such as in Tlokwe (once a vote is cast it cannot be cast somewhere else) it does risk robbing an independent candidate of representation and thereby compromise the freedom and fairness of local elections.

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THE IEC has argued that it was required to include as much information as possible on the residential addresses of voters only for those registered after November 30 last year — contrary to an Electoral Court ruling that all registered voters’ addresses should be registered which would leave 12-million to 16-million people off the voters roll before 2019-20.

The IEC also asked the Constitutional Court to suspend the need for registered addresses for forthcoming local and general elections should the court not agree with its interpretation. Regardless of the need to craft an interim solution to the voters roll problem the IEC’s apparent failure to identify and apply its mind to the voters roll addresses challenge over a 13-year period has compromised the institution’s integrity.

One is left wondering why the IEC had not crafted a strategy to deal with verifying addresses by engaging similarly challenged cellphone operators in their compliance with the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (Rica) or financial services institutions managing the Financial International Centre Act (Fica). Aligning with Stats SA’s operations appears to be another unexplored option with geo-location solutions an apparent but scrambled way forward to compliance.

While the two crises will hopefully be resolved through mediation compromise and negotiation there is little doubt that the Municipal Demarcation Board and the IEC are left somewhat red-faced around the prospects of forthcoming elections and boundaries. Parliament too could have exercised more critical oversight with far-flung communities showing up fault lines in voter-registration and boundary processes.

While these concerns may be coming to the fore only with more vocal opposition in local government they give rise to cause for concern about the structural management of local government in this most delicate year.