2021 local government elections, voter education and COVID-19 in South Africa

Author: Paul Mudau
Senior Lecturer in the Department of Public, Constitutional and International Law at the University of South Africa

Local government is the sphere of government that is closest to the people and represents the front line of service delivery. Holding competitive, periodic, inclusive and definitive elections at the local level strengthens democracy. The competitive component of local democratic elections indicates that political party and ward candidates may criticise the party or coalition that governs the municipality, and other party and ward candidates openly. They may suggest alternative policies and candidates to voters. Decisions of locally elected representatives directly affects the local communities. Failure to satisfy voters may result in the governing local public representatives being voted out of office in the next (periodic) elections. On the other hand, good performance often comes with a reward, getting re-elected into office. Thus, ideally, conditions at the local level forces and entices locally elected public officials to accounts to the needs of local communities.

The date of the 2021 local government elections is set for 1 November 2021. In the run-up to the elections, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) usually conducts civic and voter education (CVE). In terms of sections 5(1)(d) and (k) of the Electoral Commission Act 51 of 1996, the IEC is mandated to promote voter education, and sound and democratic electoral processes. Hence, CVE provides citizens with communication, general and life skills to meaningfully participate in the democratic electoral processes. The CVE is important for the preparedness and willingness of voters to participate in the elections. Under normal circumstances, CVE is conducted in physical contact sessions. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, much of this is impossible. This may impact the readiness, willingness and ability of voters to participate in the elections.

The role of civic and voter education (CVE) in local government elections

Education and participation are mutually reinforcing variables. The IEC therefore seeks to optimise participation and voter turnout by providing CVE. CVE programmes are intensified in the run-up to elections to ensure that voters are knowledgeable, informed, ready and able to engage in the democratic electoral processes. In the words of the IEC, CVE also “promotes political tolerance, mutual respect, freedom of expression and of association, as well as peace-building, and creates a conducive climate for free and fair elections”.

Generally, the objective of CVE is four-fold. Firstly, it is to ensure that a culture of democracy and human rights is promoted through creating and emphasising awareness of civic responsibilities. Secondly, CVE increases the knowledge and understanding of the electoral processes. Thirdly, target groups and areas where voter turnout has been historically low are empowered to participate fully in electoral processes. Finally, the electorate is allowed to participate in the voting process, which should help reduce the number of spoilt ballots. Public awareness programmes often target groups such as women, youth, persons with disabilities, persons who cannot read or write, voters in rural areas and other disadvantaged minorities. This helps to increase voter registration and to narrow voter participation gaps.

CVE is thus important because it assists citizens to analyse, evaluate and defend their positions on public issues, and to use their knowledge to participate in civic and political processes (e.g. to monitor government performance, or mobilise other citizens around particular issues). CVE can help citizens understand how the political system functions and to what their rights and responsibilities are (e.g. the rights to vote, and the responsibilities to respect the rule of law and the rights of others).


The implications of the COVID-19 pandemic

The IEC traditionally conducted CVE in face-to-face sessions. However, much of this is difficult to be implemented due to COVID-19 and the restrictions on public gatherings. Therefore, these important efforts to increase voter registration, voter participation and to minimise spoilt votes faces a stumbling block.

Reliance on digital technology to conduct CVE  

How must the IEC now promote meaningful voter participation in the upcoming elections? It must be borne in mind that the IEC often uses traditional media, social media, online platforms and printed materials to disseminate information about, among other things, voter registration and election dates. Nevertheless, the nature and extent of these platforms do not contain sufficient information that fully equip voters. The in-person CVE events are detailed and voters have opportunities for further clarity in cases of misinformation and uncertainties.

The use of internet and digital technology for CVE comes into play. This would entail having detailed targeted messages and Information Communication Technology (ICT), and by making use of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and SMS as effective communication platforms for disseminating CVE information. In addition, the IEC could strategically rely on multi-media platforms such as the print media, television and radio.  The mass media is crucial because it can collect, process and disseminate daily events, and keeps society informed of local, national, regional and global issues.

However, reliance on digital technology is not without shortcomings. The ‘digital divide’ means that access to ICT infrastructure, electricity, digital literacy, the internet, suitable gadgets etc. is unequal. One of the key objectives of CVE is to empower voters in remote rural areas. In these areas, access to technological infrastructure, equipment and data is a huge challenge. Consequently, these inequalities hinder the alternatives for promoting CVE through technological systems. Additionally, internet and digital technology cannot address certain physical challenges of persons with disabilities (PWDs), people with low literacy and the elderly. Reliance on internet and digital technology cannot fully provide special focus customised materials development for PWDs. This special social group relies on the material such as braille, large font, audio, sign language and the institutionalisation of the Universal Ballot Template and Special Votes.

Concluding remarks

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on the general readiness, willingness and ability of voters in participating in the upcoming 2021 local government elections. The IEC which is mandated to conduct CVE is still obliged to provide CVE on a continuous basis at all stages of the electoral cycle. However, CVE programmes need to be intensified in the run-up to local government elections in order to ensure that voters are knowledgeable, informed, ready and able to actively and effectively engage in the democratic electoral processes. The IEC could attempt to make use of a combined mass media such as print media, television and radio and the internet, particularly digital technology, in place of physical CVE based programmes. However, inequalities in access to ICT (internet, data, appropriate gadgets etc. to access CVE information) will test South Africa’s democratic project at the local level.

About the Author

Paul Mudau is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Public, Constitutional and International Law at the University of South Africa. He is currently a PhD Candidate in the School of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand. He holds an LLB from the University of Limpopo, an LLM in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa from the University of Pretoria, and an LLM in Law, State and Multilevel Government from the University of the Western Cape. His research interests include local government law, multilevel government, human rights, constitutionalism, democracy and elections, and public administration.

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