Electronic screens display national vote count results at the Independent Electoral Commission national results center in Pretoria. Picture: Getty Images/Waldo Swiegers
Electronic screens display national vote count results at the Independent Electoral Commission national results center in Pretoria. Picture: Getty Images/Waldo Swiegers

Imagine a world in which SA goes to the polls only once every few years: one queue, but multiple votes. Imagine being spoilt for choice not just in terms of which political parties to vote for, but which of a number of candidates, too, with independents on the ballot as well. Picture making your mark for democracy on at least four ballot sheets on that day: for national, provincial and local government representatives and a local ward councillor.

With so much choice, it would be a potentially exhausting exercise of democracy.

It is, of course, purely fictional. But with political parties murmuring about merging elections for local and national government, it’s something South Africans have to start thinking about.

With just more than a year to go before the 2021 local government elections, serious discussions are already under way about whether the polls will need to be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s thrown a spanner in the works for electoral politics, with the nationwide lockdown raising very real concerns about how the elections will work if restrictions on movement continue.

At the same time, both the ANC and the EFF have raised the possibility of restructuring the electoral calendar by merging the local and general elections (each now has a five-year electoral cycle, but the local and national elections are held a few years apart).

According to FM sister publication Business Day, Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) commissioner Janet Love earlier this month told the portfolio committee on home affairs, when asked about the matter, that merging the elections should be a policy decision and could require a constitutional amendment.

In other words, it would be a decision for parliament, not the IEC.

Practically, for an amalgamation to take place, the term of local governments across SA would have to be extended to 2024, when the next general election is set to take place — something that is not legally allowed at present — or elections will have to go ahead next year, with councils dissolved early to align voting for them with the 2024 election. Either way, it would be a complex process.

A constitutional amendment is not unrealistic, if one considers the willingness there has been to amend the constitution to, for example, allow for land expropriation without compensation.

The ANC is not wasting time and has already started discussions about a possible merger of elections, mandating its national working committee, along with its subcommittee on legislature and governance, to start looking into the matter.

ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule said after a national executive committee this month that discussions are focused on how the synchronisation of elections could enable better co-ordination and implementation of policies across the different spheres of government.

Phumulo Masualle, head of the party’s subcommittee on legislature and governance, tells the FM there is not yet a definitive view on the matter.

He says concerns have been raised that a single election would be too cumbersome and difficult to manage, given the three spheres of government involved and need for multiple ballot papers.

The counter-argument, however, is that holding elections every 2½ years is a financial burden. The cost of running each election is "huge", he says.

"Certainly the cost element must be looked at against other variables … whether or not it is something that could be well managed, [and] whether we have the right capacity."

Further complicating the issue is the recent Constitutional Court ruling that opens the door for independent candidates to stand for election at national and provincial level. "So it is quite an open discussion at the moment," says Masualle.

When the ANC national general council sits for its midterm conference — it’s been postponed because of Covid — the party is likely to take a firmer view, says Masualle.

However, he also points out that even if a resolution to merge the two elections is accepted, any change to the electoral system will be preceded by a constitutional amendment, which is a separate process that will unfold at its own pace.

As a result, he’s of the view that any such proposal is unlikely to affect the upcoming local government elections and will more likely have to be dealt with by the next administration.

The EFF is also considering its options. In May, the party said in a statement that it was looking at making a policy and legislative submission to parliament to combine the elections so that SA transits to a common electoral system.

"The reality of separate elections is cumbersome and has often deprived public representatives of an opportunity to deliver on their promises and commitments," the party said.

If the proposal is accepted, the EFF wants the 2021 local government elections to be postponed to 2024 and held with the general elections — with a caveat.

"In our proposal, we will clearly articulate that all dysfunctional municipalities under administration must go for elections in 2021 for a term that will finish with the rest in 2024," the party said. "SA must have one election on five-year intervals, instead of elections every two years."

Mike Moriarty, the DA representative on the IEC’s party liaison committee, disagrees.

For a start, he disputes the assertion that it will be less costly to hold a single election. According to Moriarty, the cost is mostly determined by the number of candidates — so whether you have 2,000 candidates standing in one election and 3,000 in the next, or 5,000 candidates standing in a single election, the same amount of money will be spent.

But Moriarty believes the true cost would be borne by SA’s democracy. He says there’s a democratic benefit to holding two separate elections: it gives South Africans the means to signal to the government of the day whether they are satisfied with its performance.

"If you are having this [local government] election, it’s a good test of whether the government is on track or not. That, in itself, can assist democracy," he says.

By way of example, Moriarty refers to the 2016 local government elections. In that poll, the ANC got a bloody nose from the electorate as public outrage grew over then president Jacob Zuma’s incumbency.

The ANC, after being spared a similar beating in the 2019 general elections, said the 2016 poll was a turning point for the party.

Moriarty says that while a joint election creates the additional issue of more ballots for voters to focus on, it also creates the risk of critical local government issues falling by the wayside as voters get sucked into the noise of national politics.

For now, this is an issue of debate — and one that is unlikely to translate into substantial electoral reform any time soon. More pressing is the struggle of preparing for an election during a pandemic.

As a result of Covid-19, political parties have had to change the way they work. Already the IEC has had to ask the electoral court for extensions of numerous by-elections. The commission’s fear is that elections held under the current restrictions on gatherings and movement would result in polls that are not free and fair.

The IEC has compiled a discussion document, which is being considered by political parties, on plans to ensure that voting stations do not turn into "areas of contagion".

Masego Sheburi, the commission’s deputy chief electoral officer, says it is increasingly unlikely that the 2021 local government elections will go ahead during the earliest part of the constitutional window for the election, as the Municipal Demarcation Board has already asked for more time to do its work. But it is not up to the IEC to determine the date of the elections.

"The organisational position is that we must stand ready to run an election within 90 days whenever an election is called," Sheburi says.

So while Covid-19 surges through SA, the IEC will soldier on with its preparations for next year, and parliament will start grappling with the legislative reforms required to allow independent candidates to stand for election in 2024.

Times are uncertain for the IEC, SA’s political parties and voters — and they’re likely to be that way for a few years to come.

Equally uncertain is whether the proposed reforms will be to the detriment or benefit of democracy in SA. That’s likely to lie in the hands of the country’s politicians.