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Two factors make the upcoming local government elections like no other we’ve experienced – the Covid-19 pandemic, and the imminent enforcement of the Political Party Funding Act, due to commence on 1 April 2021. The elections are scheduled to take place between 4 August and 1 November, and will be the sixth municipal election held in South Africa since 1994. The previous such elections were held in 2016.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has welcomed President Cyril Ramaphosa’s official announcement at the end of February that South Africa would return to alert level 1. This, said the IEC, has opened the way for the resumption of some political activities including political gatherings of up to 100 people in an indoor venue and 250 people in an outdoor venue.

The new alert level also clears the road for by-elections to take place, to fill municipal ward vacancies.

At the beginning of February the Electoral Court authorised the postponement of the by-elections scheduled for March, because the alert level at that time prohibited political activities. No by-elections were held in the first quarter of 2021.

Rather, the outstanding by-elections are re-scheduled for 21 April and 19 May, with 45 by-elections taking place across 37 municipalities in all nine provinces. The IEC will use these events to test its systems and Covid-19 protocols as, it says, they are possibly the “final opportunities ahead of local government elections for the IEC, political parties, independent candidates and other stakeholders to test their protocols for campaigning, voter registration, voting and counting of ballots while maintaining Covid-19 safety measures”.

IEC electoral officer Mawethu Mosery emphasised that basic preventative actions should be taken by individuals and institutions to cut down on potential transmission of the virus on election day.

“The conditions are simple: Social distancing, sanitising, wearing of masks and ensuring that there are no large gatherings at the voting stations, we are focused on that. These two by-elections will provide a real platform for us to test those protocols and their effectiveness.”

Because the IEC was able to conduct free, fair and safe by-elections in November and December 2020 during an alert level 1 phase of restrictions, it is confident it can conduct further by-elections under the same conditions.

Gearing up for enhanced funding transparency

At the same time the IEC is in the final phase of preparations for implementation of the Political Party Funding Act from 1 April 2021.

The date of implementation coincides with the start of a new financial year within the public sector and for political parties, said the IEC, which means that changes required by the Act, including revisions to the Represented Political Party Fund, will be easier to account for. 

It will also mean an increase in transparency around party funding ahead of the local government elections.

“The Act is one of the most important and far-reaching enhancements to our electoral democracy since the adoption of the Constitution in 1996 and the subsequent passing of the Electoral Commission Act and Electoral Act,” said IEC chairperson Glen Mashinini in January 2021. “It is a major milestone in the evolution of democracy in our country

The Act requires all political parties and their corporate donors to declare all private donations (including donations in kind) above the value of R100 000 per year to the IEC on a quarterly basis, while donors are required to declare donations within 30 days of payment. The commission will publish these declarations online, and will also table an annual report in Parliament with a record of all donations across the political spectrum.

To facilitate these declarations, the IEC has developed an on-line party funding system which has been available to represented political parties for testing and piloting since late 2020. There will be consequences, including fines and withholding funds, for those political parties that refuse to abide by the rules.  

Once the Act commences, parties will be required to disclose all donations received between April and June this year, said the IEC.

The Act prohibits donations to political parties by foreign governments, agencies or persons, and organs of state and state-owned entities. It also sets an annual limit of R15-million as the maximum a person or organisation may donate annually to an individual party.

The regulations accompanying the Act were published in the Government Gazette on 29 January 2021. These, said the IEC, were drafted over the past two years in consultation with political parties, civil society and other stakeholders, and provide guidelines on the procedures, deadlines and methods of declaration of donations.

CW helped to make party funding act a reality

Corruption Watch is one of the civil society organisations that has played a notable role in the development of the Act. As early as 2017 it made oral and written submissions to Parliament on the Political Party Funding Bill, as well as a written submission to the IEC on the proposed regulations to the Act.

In December 2020 the organisation wrote to the president, raising concerns of potential interests opposed to the Political Party Funding Act and working to ensure that it would not be implemented. The letter urged the president to promulgate a commencement date of the Act before 1 April 2021, to allow for its implementation in the forthcoming local government elections, failing which an urgent court application would be sought.

The Presidency responded at the end of 2020, confirming that, following consultations between the Department of Home Affairs and the IEC, the Act will be proclaimed on or before 1 April 2021.