2021 Local Elections, Governance and Stability

During the run-up to the local government (LG) elections, it is not uncommon for turbulence to arise in municipalities because of the potential shifts that can occur in the composition of municipal councils. Uncertainties emanating from the elections that are yet to transpire also feeds back into the municipal administrations, making it fragile during election times. This report provides a summary of the proceedings of a webinar on LG elections and their impact on the municipal administration.

The webinar, titled ‘2021 Local Elections, Governance and Stability’, was hosted by the Dullah Omar Institute, in collaboration with the South African Local Government Association and the Hanns Seidel Foundation.  It brought together election administrators, local government practitioners, researchers and civil society actors and took place on 4 September 2020.

The chair, panel, and key questions for discussion

The webinar was chaired by Prof. Jaap de Visser who is the director of the Dullah Omar Institute. The panel comprised of three speakers namely: Mr. Sy Mamabolo, who is the Chief Electoral Officer of the Independent Electoral Commission; Mr. Johann Mettler, who is an expert in LG and a former City Manager of Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality; and Dr. Tina Nzo, who is a senior researcher at the Public Affairs Institute. The panellists covered or responded to the following questions:

1.     Mr. Mamabolo: What are the critical factors to ensure a free and fair election?

2.     Mr. Mettler: What impact do elections have on a municipal administration?

3.     Dr. Nzo: What can we expect of political parties and senior officials in the months ahead?


1. Mr. Mamabolo: What are the critical factors to ensure a free and fair election?

Information about the elections should be clear and concise

In discussing the importance of elections, Mr Mamabolo noted that the ‘success factors of any election are a confluence of key elements and those elements are: an election as a legal process, an election as a political process, an election as a logistical undertaking and an election as an administrative process’. These factors are interdependent in a symbiotic relationship and should ‘coalesce in the period governed by the election timetable: that is, from the date when an election is called until the Election Day’. Where any of these elements are lacking, a free and fair election process is not possible. 

The legal framework that applies to the elections such as the Electoral Commission Act, Municipal Electoral Act, Municipal Structures Act, Regulations on the Registration of Political Parties, and the Regulations on the Registration of Voters should create ‘certainty’ and ‘predictability’ of the elections.  Mr Mamabolo stated that the information should not only be accessible to the public but the information should also be conveyed in a ‘simplified format’. To achieve this, Mr Mamabolo highlighted that the IEC will create short fact-sheets without complicated legal jargon to enable citizens to better understand the laws that apply to the LG elections.  

Citizens without addresses will be able to vote in the 2020 LG elections

The right to a free and fair elections underscores the importance that every citizen exercises his or her right to vote. To give effect to this, Mamabolo stated that the legal framework was amended ahead of the 2021 LG elections to relax the requirement that citizens should have an address to register to vote in a particular ward:

‘We have proposed a number of legislative amendments which cabinet has recently passed. Some of the key aspects of those amendments include having a varied voting procedure for those voters who do not have addresses… because they still have a constitutional right to vote.’

The protection of voter information set out in the voters’ roll

Previously, any political organisations or persons could access the voters' roll subject to paying a fee. Accessing the voters roll, in turn, provides a political organisation or any person with access to the private information, including a cell phone number, address and identity number, of any voter. Mamabolo stated that they are in the process of ‘balancing the right to access the voters roll against the unnecessary disclosure of personal information as regulated by POPIA (Protection of Personal Information Act)’.

Free and fair elections require a conducive political climate

Mr Mamabolo also reflected on some of the mechanisms that are in place to regulate conflict among the political parties. He explained that:

‘in an election that is concerned with the contest for state power, there are going to be disputes. There are no elections without disputes.’ Among the structures available to facilitate the resolution of disputes that arises during the election period is the conflict management program. This structure operates at the provincial level and comprises of conflict mediators that are mandated to ‘engage with parties that are in dispute’. The conflict management program, along with the Electoral Code of Conduct that prescribes certain behavioural standards, aims to minimise conflict that may contribute to a hostile political environment that may undermine the fairness of the elections.

The increasing number of political parties and independent candidates in LG elections

Mr Mamabolo revealed that, on 4 September 2020, the IEC recorded 313 political parties that are registered to contest the LG elections. He opined that the influx in political parties is driven by the desire to acquire state authority at the municipal level:

‘Local elections are about the political contest for the control of state affairs within the local sphere. This is a quest for the legitimate assumption of state authority and this comes with great control of assets and resources of the state hence the human proclivity for power has increased.’

Mr Mamabolo attributes the same reasoning to the increased number of independent candidates. For the 2016 LG elections, there were 855 independent candidates (compared to 754 in the 2011 LG elections). He projected that this number may further increase to more or less 1026 independent candidates for the 2021 LG elections.

Logistics of LG elections are demanding

Mr Mamabolo expressed concern about the logistics of the current election method in LG that requires the IEC to print ballot papers that is integral to the LG elections: ‘In LG we prepare 44 district ballots, 213 proportional representation ballots and approximately 4392 ward ballots, and we have to print all these ballots in the correct quantities per ward. Cumulatively, that is 74 million ballots that have to be printed within a 10-day window period… So, there is great ballot-production complexity and it is a critical success factor to an election. To print these ballot forms you need 500 tons of paper.’

The IEC should maintain the integrity of the elections

Finally, Mr Mamabolo highlighted that to ensure free and fair elections, the IEC must accurately capture the result slip ‘because the result slip becomes the bearer of the sovereign will of the people within a particular voting district’. He further indicated that the IEC should also ‘maintain the integrity of the process from point of counting the ballots, collection of the ballots, to the point of capturing and transmission’.

2. Mr. Mettler: What impact do elections have on a municipal administration?

Mr Mettler highlighted that ‘political tensions are present in municipalities on any given day’. However, in the run-up to the elections, these tensions are heightened and manifest in several ways. He reflected on the key issues that arise in the final fiscal year of a governance term - that is in the run-up to the local elections.

The last drive to meet service delivery goals in the final fiscal year before an election

Municipal officials, such as the municipal manager and senior managers, are required to manage the political expectations of councillors. Often, in the final financial year before the elections, councillors exert pressure on the administration to achieve service delivery goals that were not addressed in the first four years of the governance term. As the former municipal manager explained:

‘The MM will try to manage the expectations as far as possible so that councillors feel that goals are being met. [The last financial year of a term], ‘…is not the year where you promise more things... you should really be in a period of consolidation because that year is where your politicians are going out to campaign for the elections... but that does not happen. There is a great expectation on municipal officials to perform proverbial miracles. If you have not sorted out sanitation issues then you must do it now. If you have not built the 2000 houses you said you will build, you shall do it now. It then becomes highly contested and stressful...’

An impending LG election and the politicisation of municipal platforms

The Municipal Systems Act requires that the municipality reports back to the community on council matters, including the performance of the municipality. According to Mr Mettler, in the run-up to the local elections, such meetings are often politicised by the political parties in the council: ‘In the lead up to the elections, the incumbent party could easily fall into the trap of confusing the state platform (where report to say this is what the municipality has done) with a party platform by still saying “this is what we have done” but they attend those meetings in their party regalia’. As the former Municipal Manager further explained:

‘they pitch up in their red, blue, yellow, and orange t-shirts... so, the distinction between state and party becomes blurred during the run-up to elections. It is important, whether you are in the administration or the political sphere, to maintain that distinction because it will impact on the credibility of the whole process. The people will say that you are using the municipality’s resources to advance your own party.’

A call for professionalism to be maintained in the political arm of the municipality

According to Mr Mettler ‘professionalism must be apparent and practiced from the outset. You cannot suddenly become professional in the last five months up to the elections. That does not work. It is like integrity, it is either you have it or you do not have it. You do not suddenly discover integrity because somebody said there shall be an election’. Mr Mettler further argued that professionalism, however, is not based on how a person is but it is instead ‘closely linked to one taking firm action but it is based on policy and established practices’. For example, on the issue of voters’ addresses, Mr Mettler stated that there ought to be a system with clear rules that are applied consistently. However, during the run-up to the elections, he continues, ‘there is a common accusation of busing… where a political party would bring people into a particular ward because the numbers do not look too good for that political party’. Mr Mettler concluded on this matter by saying that, in being professional, there should be a particular way in how one would deal with the issue of busing as opposed to dealing with it on an ad hoc basis because it allows for corners to be cut.

3. Dr. Nzo: What can we expect of political parties and senior officials in the months ahead?

Commenting on what can be expected of political parties and senior officials ahead of the impending elections, Dr Nzo reflected on the trends that occurred in the run up to previous LG elections.

The relationship between the declining quality of service delivery in municipalities and electoral outcomes

Dr. Nzo submitted that, save for other factors such as the voter apathy and the increase in support for smaller parties, there are other factors that are shaping electoral outcomes of LG.  She argued that the declining support of the African National Congress (from 62 percent in 2011 to 54 percent in 2016) ‘talks about the quality of democracy’. Further, when we start to ‘see LG voters support dwindling at 50 percent, it talks about the issue of declining quality of services.

The impact of political-administrative instability on good municipal governance in municipalities

Dr Nzo explained how tensions between the administrative and political arm may play out and undermine good governance practices in municipalities. She states that ‘often, elected political office-bearers have tensions with senior managers in most municipalities, resulting in many senior managers being suspended due to certain allegations’. Sadly, ‘some of these allegations are trumped up due to these tensions’. These unhealthy relations often contribute to the decline in the quality and quantity of services.

Political killings in the run-up to LG elections

On the issue of political killings, Dr Nzo highlighted that this a big problem especially in Kwa-Zulu Natal ‘where we saw [many] councillors, including senior municipal officials being assassinated during the time of the elections’.  She stated that the political killings have already began to pick up and cited ‘reports of a ward councillor in eThekwini Municipality who was assassinated on the 23 of June 2020.’ Dr Nzo projected that we could see a rise in the number of political killings ahead of the LG elections.  Thus, the recurrence of political killings in the run-up to the LG elections stresses the need to explore ways to strengthen the safety and security of those who stand to contest the LG elections.

Municipal officials become rogue to retain their jobs

Dr Nzo stated that a change in political leadership often threatens employment prospects of those who are in the administration.  She argued that the jobs of cadres deployed in the municipal administration are particularly at risk. Nzo submitted that protection ought to be provided to municipal officials to prevent them from potential job losses if a new government comes to power after the LG elections. Otherwise, municipal senior managers may ‘start to become rogue administrators’ in a bid to secure their jobs after the elections. Thus, the lack of protection in this regard has also arguably contributed to a lack of ethics and professionalism among municipal officials.

Councillors are increasingly voting against the motions put forward by their own political parties

There is a rising trend in municipal councils where councillors are voting against the motions of their political parties.  Does this speak to the growth in local democracy, where councillors are now prepared to defend the interests of their constituencies which sometimes may not be line with those of their political parties?  Dr Nzo attributes this partially to factionalism within political parties. She stated that several councillors across the various political parties are increasingly voting against the motions put forward by their own political parties, and in some cases vote in favour of motions put forward by opposition parties.  Dr Nzo added that ‘we are finding that there is a growth in resistance where councillors want to act on their trustee and delegate model of representation outside of the political party’.

Questions and answer session

The legitimacy of the process of elections: How are ballot papers produced and what are the checks and balances that are used to make sure that voting processes are conducted fairly and according to the rules?

Mr Mamabolo responded that the IEC is in partnership with the Printing Federation of South Africa which is required to conduct quality assurance of the ballots. He added that ‘embedded in the ballot are close to nine security features that each ballot paper has’. As soon as the ballots reach the voting station, the presiding officer must produce a ballot paper statement that indicates the number of ballots that were received in the voting station, how many of the ballots were used, and the number of the remaining ballot papers. Therefore, ‘the ballot statement is an important control measure’.

Impact of COVID-19 on elections: What is the level of preparedness that we have to deal with a possible re-emergence of COVID-19?

Mr Mamabolo indicated that ‘the obvious impact is that we [IEC] were not able to have by-elections since March. We have postponed close to 86 by-elections which are due. Some of them are a bit problematic because they hold the balance of power within the municipal council and the Commission is eager to clear those by-elections as soon as possible.’

On the issue of preparedness, Mamabolo said that ‘[the IEC] drafted a document on how to manage the voting stations in a COVID-19 climate: queuing, adhering to social distancing and the use of sanitisers to clean surfaces each time a voter leaves the station… all those things have been factored’. This means that the costs of organising the elections is going to increase since the IEC will have to provide personal protective equipment to IEC officials, and implement the COVID-19 regulations at the voting stations, over and above the general costs of organising the election.

Financial assistance to political parties: How is it calculated and will newly registered political parties qualify for financial assistance?

Mr Mamabolo had this to say in response to this question:

‘This is a crucial point because if the state does not sufficiently fund political processes in the country, political contestants are going to find alternate ways of getting money, including money that may have been acquired through means that are not transparent. In that lies the possibility that our politics might be at the whim of foreign influence. So, it is important, even with a perilous economic climate that a commitment is made to sufficiently fund all the contestants equitably and to ensure that we minimise the influence of foreign influences in our politics. There is a new Party Funding Act which has been assented to by the President but yet to be promulgated.’

Mr Mettler agreed with Mamabolo on the issue of party funding and added that: ‘I do think that the state has a responsibility [to fund political parties] because you do not want political parties to subject to other influences that are not welcome in a democracy.’

Do we need a right to recall councillors? What would be the impact and feasibility of having a system where councillors can be recalled?

Mr Mettler was hesitant to support the introduction of clause making provision for the recalling of councillors. He argued that there is a risk that the right to recall a councillor may heighten existing contestations over power and resources in political structures. Sometimes, councillors are unfairly judged for the lack or slow pace of development in their areas despite the fact that they may have little or no control over certain expenditure prioritisation. Mr Mettler stated that ‘often there is an exaggeration of the effect that ward councillors have in his or her ward. The development in wards are subject to the Service Delivery Budget Implementation Plan (for the year) and the IDP (for the five years) of the ward. So, in a particular year, there may or may not be big infrastructure developments in that particular ward but it is not [a councillor’s] decision as it is subject to another decision that indicates in which year development will take place. There is very little that a ward or PR [proportional representation] councillor can do about that priority setting which is determined at a higher level. You cannot hold that against a councillor. Therefore, I think one must be careful what you wish for.’

Qualifications for councillors and office-bearers: How do we see that political parties feel that they field quality candidates and that they have elected quality office-bearers?

Responding to this question Mr Mettler stated: ‘you do not want to be ruled by a bunch of lawyers, accountants, engineers, and teachers. I do not think that’s what we want but at least you would want people that can read and write. Somebody that can engage with an agenda, that can engage with policy and read with comprehension. I would not put that bar high because it is a democracy.’ Dr. Nzo agreed with Mr Mettler on the need for political office-bearers who do not necessarily have professional qualifications but can at least read and write.  In addition, the question of how councillors are elected to serve on oversight committees of the council is equally important. She had this to say: ‘If you are going to have an individual who is appointed to be the chairperson of the MPAC or chairperson of the finance committee, there is an expectation that is raised that the individual would have some background understanding and knowledge about the complexities relating to the administrative information that is given to councillors. What we are finding in our research is that councillors who do not have those basic skills and understanding of the relational work that they have to do in these committees are often found in a position where the information is concealed by the administration and they are unable to understand the information of some of the documents that are given to them by the administration. So, that is a debate that we should continue to have...’

How will voter education be conducted in a COVID-19 environment?

Mr Mamabolo responded to this question by saying that the IEC has decided to deliver voting education via community radio stations: ‘We ca not go to communities to deliver voting education, voting education has to be delivered through broadcast media and social media, and one of the available avenues is community radio stations.’

Should LG elections be harmonised with national and provincial elections?

Prof De Visser and Mr Mettler criticised the suggestion to harmonise national, provincial and local government elections primarily on democratic grounds.   Prof de Visser argued that ‘a single election would crowd out any local accountability because the election would be dominated by debates and discourse around the national debates such as who is going to be the next president and which party is going to rule in the National Assembly’. If the elections are harmonised, Pro De Visser indicated that he ‘fear[s] the worst for the little bit of local accountability that …have built up over the last decade and a half in local government.’ Mr Mamabolo, without supporting or opposing single elections, stated that ‘[single elections] is a matter that must be considered carefully by all South Africans and it requires a long policy discussion which has to include the views of the electorate’. He further added that single elections will not be possible in 202.

The webinar produced rich deliberations about the challenges that municipalities face in the run-up to the LG elections including, among others, heightened political contestations, significant pressure on the administration, and a lack of professionalism in some areas of local government. Added to these challenges is the administrative and financial challenges attributed to COVID-19 pandemic. Among other things, the IEC may have to implement measures to prevent the transmission of the virus at the voting stations. It is, therefore, clear that municipalities, as well as the IEC, will be under significant pressure in the months leading to the 2021 LG elections.


by Jennica Beukes, Research assistant, and Doctoral Researcher


The publication of the Bulletin is made possible with the support provided by the Hanns Seidel Foundation and the Bavarian State Chancellery.

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