Friday, 18 September 2020

Pretoria: The Electoral Commission (IEC) has set the deadline of 11 November 2020 to clear the backlog of all outstanding by-elections postponed during the COVID-19 lockdown.

During this period, by-elections in 96 wards in 56 municipalities will be held after President Cyril Ramaphosa announces that the country would from Monday move to lockdown Alert Level 1. Level 1 will also see a lifting of restrictions on political activities.

In a statement on Friday, the IEC said the scheduling also follows consultations with the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, as well as represented political parties via a special National Party Liaison Committee meeting held yesterday.

By-elections have not been held since March 2020 following the declaration of a National State of Disaster and the imposition of the lockdown restrictions intended to curb the spread of Coronavirus.

“Since then, 96 ward vacancies in 56 municipalities have occurred, including two dissolved councils in the Northern Cape, where PR [party representative] candidates must also be elected,” said the Commission.

To clear the backlog, the Electoral Commission said it plans to hold all vacant ward by-elections simultaneously on 11 November 2020.

By-elections are scheduled in all nine provinces across 461 voting districts, affecting over 600 000 registered voters.

The by-elections will 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 the voting station.

Voters are also encouraged to bring their own pens to mark their ballot papers although pens will be provided and sanitised after each use.

In the statement, the IEC said it is confident that these measures would allow for free and fair elections to proceed in a safe environment.

“The decision by the Commission to approach the Electoral Court for postponements of by-elections since March was not taken lightly,” said IEC Chairperson Glen Mashinini.

“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.”

Chief Electoral Officer Sy Mamabolo said a special targeted communications and education programme will be undertaken in the affected wards to teach voters about the new safety protocols and to encourage participation.

Mamabolo said the reduction in the alert level and lifting of restrictions on political activities provided a window to the Electoral Commission to clear the backlog of by-elections ahead of next year’s scheduled Municipal Elections.

Ward council vacancies are not ordinarily filled during the final six months leading to Municipal Elections. South Africa will continue to hold by-elections for all the wards that become vacant 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 while the COVID-19 conditions had improved sufficiently to enable the holding of elections, the circumstances still demanded the utmost vigilance and conformity to health protocols by election staff, political parties, candidates, observers and other stakeholders.

“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,” he said.