Postpone LGE 2021 and strengthen democracy

Ballot boxes at Kalkfontein Primary School voting station in Kuilsriver, South Africa. Photo by: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency (ANA)

By now most of us can agree that we are living in unprecedented times. 

Never before in post-apartheid South Africa has a national state of disaster been declared. Our cabinet is literally making up the rules as we are going along. 

As South Korea saw a spike in infections after seven weeks of having none, ‘The Washington Post’ reported on 28 May that the Covid-19 virus was going to be with us for a very long time even if a vaccine is discovered and distributed.

At the beginning of May, director at the South African Medical Research Council and professor of vaccinology at Wits University, Shabir Madhi, is reported to have said of the Covid19 pandemic that “…we must be clear. This is not a three-to-six month project. This is not the 2020 phenomenon. This pandemic will be with us until the end of 2022 at the earliest.”

Judging by the last pandemic of this nature, the Spanish flu, commentators have gone on to suggest that we will have to wait for the second and the third wave, after managing the first. Here in China, the signs of a second wave have already started to show. 

Writing in the renowned medical journal ‘The Lancet’, in early April, Kathy Leung and her colleagues, in an article titled ‘Beware of the second wave of Covid19’ suggest that the second wave will probably break out in the northern hemisphere in mid-summer this year which will be mid-winter in South Africa. 

At that time South Africa should be close to its peak with its first wave. As government has suggested we should be reaching our peak in September.

Professor Madhi is therefore correct when he suggests that Covid-19 and the concomitant action taken to mitigate it, such as the lockdowns and social distancing, will be with us for the foreseeable future; that is if we wish to continue to save lives.

While it is an election year in the United States and while countries such as South Korea have gone ahead and held theirs, it is difficult to assess whether South Africa will be able to hold its local government elections successfully next year. 

Already the IEC has indicated that the processes leading up to the elections, such as ward and municipal demarcation, has had to be postponed. It is suggested that we could be preparing for the polls by October 2021. 

This when possibly South Africa will be experiencing its peak of the third wave of Covid-19 and if we are lucky and it does not spill over into 2022, as predicted by Professor Madhi. 

The proposal has been made before to hold all three South Africa’s elections on one day. To cut costs seriously of holding elections every two and a half years, it was suggested that national, provincial and local government elections take place on a single day. With the Covid-19 pandemic this argument looks even more plausible. 

We also know that the participation rate of voters coming out to vote on elections day is much higher in a national and provincial election than it is in a local government one. By combining the the three elections onto one day guarantees maximum participation from our voters. 

The Constitution of the Republic is clear that the term of office of a municipal council shall be five years. However, given the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in and given the unprecedented times, a discussion should ensue so as to whether this would be an opportune moment to introduce the notion and practice of three elections on the same day. Surely, the courts too could be approached to concur, if needs be. 

A week is a long time in politics and we may well be in a better position come October 2021. However, we may also be not. Our system of governance, especially at local government level, depends deeply on a democracy that is legitimate and participatory. 

If we are aiming for free and fair elections then it would certainly make sense to postpone the elections. It would not make sense to have an election in 2022 and then again in 2024. Instead, we must be able to use the crisis of Covid-19 as an opportunity to strengthen our democracy. 

Dr Wesley Seale has taught politics at Rhodes University and UWC.