A prayer for all parties: IEC head Sy Mamabolo confident of a well-oiled ballot
Sy Mamabolo prays twice a day - in the morning and evening. He prays for his family, the nation and, most importantly, for the election that he is about to preside over for the first time as chief electoral officer.
A deacon in the Roman Catholic Church archdiocese of Johannesburg, Mamabolo is under no illusion about the task that faces him and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) for the general election on May 8.
"In terms of my responsibilities of clergy, I have got to say prayers in the morning and in the evening. This election needs prayer and it needs the blessings of the Holy Spirit."
His office on the second floor of Election House in Centurion is decked in brown leather and mahogany, testament to his stature and the significance of his position. Pictures of his two children and himself in full Catholic robes hang behind his desk.
Mamabolo is no novice when it comes to running an election.
This is his 21st year at the IEC, having joined in 1998 after serving a stint as a policy analyst at the Institute for Democracy in SA, where he worked on developing the white paper for local government.
He calls his rise steady, not meteoric, and it brought him his first experience of an election in 1999.Dealing with candidatesMamabolo spent most of his career in the IEC at the provincial office in Gauteng, which he joined as a deputy director for political party liaison. He quickly moved to logistics and was later promoted to director of operations."That involved dealing with candidates, dealing with voter registration, dealing with logistics."This year's election, however, is different in many ways. A record 48 parties are contesting the national ballot, an administrative nightmare for an organisation that handled 29 parties five years ago. It has meant an innovative ballot paper.
The IEC commissioned research by the Human Sciences Research Council which explored changes that could be made to the ballot to make it easier for voters.The result is a ballot paper that Mamabolo describes as having a "futuristic feel"."You will see on the day of voting that the ballot will have a look and feel which is slightly different from what we have been accustomed to. There are new design features on the ballot. It is going to accentuate the party identifiers rather than the party name."The party logo, party acronym and the picture of the leader will feature more prominently on the ballot paper than the name of the party, he says."Human nature is such that you look for the party logo and the acronym. You don't look for the whole party name."But not everyone is happy with their positioning on the ballot paper.The African Independent Congress (AIC), formed to champion the cause of the people of Matatiele, who want to be part of KwaZulu-Natal and not the Eastern Cape, is a case in point.In the 2014 and 2016 elections, the AIC capitalised on its position just above the ANC and a logo and acronym that closely resembled those of the ANC. It won three seats in parliament and became a kingmaker in Ekurhuleni following local government elections in 2016.
This time, though, the IEC has made things a bit tricky for the party, separating it from the ANC on the ballot paper through an intricate draw system.
Mamabolo says part of the research study into the shape of the ballot paper included investigating if there was confusion between the logos of the AIC and the ANC, as well as their acronyms. The results of the study confirmed the confusion, he says.
"That scientific study was shared with the national party liaison committee. [The committee] recommended that those parties within a component of the alphabet needed to be separated manually."
After careful consideration, he says, the commission acceded to this request. A public draw was held between the affected parties, which was won by the AIC, allowing it to maintain its original spot on the ballot paper while the ANC moved to another segment of parties whose names begin with A.
"That is consistent with our discussions with political parties and that's precisely what we implemented."
Asked if the same shouldn't apply to the EFF, which sits below another new party with a similar name and feel, the Economic Emancipation Forum, Mamabolo says that while their names are similar, their logos and acronyms are fundamentally different.
No hope of a seat
Contesting an election is not cheap. Representation on a national ballot will set you back R200,000 while presence on a provincial ballot costs R45,000.
But that doesn't seem a deterrent to parties that, on the face of it, have no hope of gaining even a single seat in the National Assembly. New hopefuls include a party that champions capitalism, one that represents security guards, a formation whose aim is to expel all foreigners from the country and another that seeks to advance the cause of women.
Is it too easy for every Tom, Sipho and Jane to register a party and contest the elections? Shouldn't there be more stringent requirements?
Mamabolo points out that the IEC is under a legal obligation to register each party whose constitution, once it has been evaluated, does not clash with provisions of the country's constitution.
"Post that registration, if a party engages in behaviour that is inimical to the country's constitutional provisions, then our recourse is to the electoral court. It is for the electoral court, exercising its broad jurisdiction on electoral matters, to decide whether they order the party to stop engaging in that, or they order that we deregister the political party."He does concede, however, that perhaps a debate must be had about whether the increasing number of registered political parties equates to deepening democracy, and if the deposit requirements for national and provincial elections is adequate in the long run."Our experience in this election is beginning to say to us that perhaps we ought to review the election deposits, with a view to an upward increase for the future," says MamaboloAddresses for all votersMamabolo has had little sleep since taking the reins as the IEC's administrative head in October 2017. The Constitutional Court ruled that the voters' roll was not in line with the Electoral Act. It gave the IEC until June 2019 to comply with legislation that required the addresses of all registered voters to be recorded on the voters' roll.Combined with preparations for the election, which began 18 months before the actual voting, he has been putting in 14-hour workdays.Working with other state institutions such as the department of home affairs, provinces and municipalities, the IEC has increased the number of registered addresses on the voters' roll from 8.4-million in 2016 to 22.4-million in 2019.This figure represents 84% of all registered voters. For a developing country characterised by uneven spatial development, that is nothing short of a miracle."It has taken sweat and blood, really, to realise that feat," says Mamabolo.
In this age of social media, where fake news spreads fast, Mamabolo and his team have also had to devise ways of policing misinformation.
The commission has partnered with Media Monitoring Africa to launch the Real411.org.za website that will monitor complaints about incitement to violence and discrimination, and false and defamatory allegations about parties on social media and other online platforms.
The aim is not to fight social media and online trolls, he says, but to react to genuine complaints - where evidence can be produced - about behaviour that has the effect of compromising the integrity of the election. No complaints have been received so far.
"The idea is not to be a policeman of all social media platforms. This is a complaints-driven process. We will investigate when we receive a complaint and see whether that complaint amounts to a violation of the electoral code of conduct."
Mamabolo is also quick to defend the organisation against accusations that it easily dismissed 52 of the 53 objections it received regarding party candidates' lists. This included objections to the inclusion, among others, of ANC heavyweights Nomvula Mokonyane, Bathabile Dlamini, Bheki Cele and Gwede Mantashe.
The IEC follows legal guidelines when disqualifying candidates.
The only people who can be excluded by the electoral commission from forwarded party lists are unrehabilitated insolvents, those declared to be of an unsound mind by a court of law, and persons convicted and sentenced to terms of 12 months or more in prison without the options of fines.
He insists that people cannot be excluded on the basis of allegations against them. "Otherwise you run the risk of curtailing people's constitutional right to stand for public office on mere allegations. I don't think that's the type of society we want to build."
This is going to be a tough election, but Mamabolo, a Wits graduate with a master's in politics, believes he is up to the task. He says meditation and his faithkeep him grounded and focused on the task ahead.
"My Catholicism has a profound impact on how I deal with other people. How I relate with other staff in the institution, how I relate with other stakeholders. It has grounded me on principles of social justice, principles of realising the dignity of every person, even people who may be far more junior than I am. Also, being approachable . because everybody must feel comfortable to raise issues with you. I think that's what my Catholicism gives me in the professional space."In the end, he adds, the IEC has to be judged on having delivered an election that is highly credible and acceptable to all parties and the population. That falls squarely on his shoulders and those of the 220,000 people who will be under his command on election day."While this job is fulfilling in many respects, it can be a very difficult job because you are carrying the hopes and aspirations of 26.7-million people on your shoulders. You are carrying the aspirations of 48 political parties, all with their own expectations of you, all with their dreams about themselves as party leaders. You can be seen to be either a hindrance or a facilitator."