Home Opinion and Features OPINION: The institution of regular elections put at risk

OPINION: The institution of regular elections put at risk


Elections must happen, they must happen regularly and must not be interrupted at the whim of political incumbents. The pandemic imposes an obligation on South Africa’s institutions to make elections safe, not to stop them, writes Professor Alex van den Heever.

IEC tape at a voting station. File picture: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency (ANA)

By Professor Alex van den Heever

THE IMPOSITION of a deadly airborne pandemic has demonstrated its capacity for the total disruption of all normal human interactions.

Staying at home and away from others if you’re ill raises few concerns when somewhat randomly distributed throughout society. But it becomes a matter of serious public concern when everyone must isolate or behave cautiously together. Everything then stops.

The problem is, despite the pandemic, many normal societal functions must continue regardless. Economic activity is not a question of profit over risk. It puts food on tables, keeps services functioning, pays for government, educates children and adults and maintains social stability.

These are not nice to haves. The only option any reasonable government has in the face of Covid-19 is to prevent and treat with as little damage as possible to society.

So, how important is an election to society? If you’re having trouble answering this, think of how society would look without them.

The absence of elections doesn’t imply the absence of governments. You are just left with governments that lack legitimacy.

Unfortunately, even without legitimacy governments can exercise power at their discretion, especially where they have a monopoly over the exercise of violence.

Foolishly, some people talk wistfully about the virtues of benevolent dictatorships. They fixate on the clarity of purpose that comes from the ability to make uncluttered technical decisions in the interests of society. If only there were no need to have to ask people about their needs, and which problems in society to prioritise.

While there are apparent minor transient successes here and there, where power concentrated in the hands of an elite has not immediately translated into tyranny and social collapse, the general, and rather predictable, tendency is for a privileged elite to prioritise their own private interests first, regardless of the wider consequences.

Power concentrations lead to thuggery. Don’t ever be fooled. And once thuggery is imposed, its removal is hard, often bloody and typically just replaces one thug with another.

Government by thuggery destroys institutions that maintain the social order, that ensure non-violent forms of conflict resolution and that enable productive social participation.

After all, who will make efforts to engage in society productively and positively when it can all be stolen overnight.

Institutions distribute power in society, ensure stable relations and attempt to instil fairness and justice.

A country without such institutions divides society into bandits or hostages. Czars or serfs. Warlords and the shivering masses.

Countries that have lost their institutions do not recover them overnight. It takes generations to build stable institutions – through trial and error and active social engagement.

Elections are one of these institutions. In South Africa we have many institutions that work, despite concerted efforts in recent years to undermine them.

Deciding who gets to wield official power is fundamental to the social order –and there simply is no better method for making this decision than elections.

To avoid the misconduct of tyrannical wannabes who get elected, we have other institutions – such as the Constitution, enforced by an independent judiciary.

It is worth noting, however, that many tyrannical dictators were elected. And, the moment they had the opportunity, they removed the protections of Constitutions and independent judiciaries.

The institutional lesson from this, therefore, is to have regular elections – the timing of which is fixed in stone.

It takes time for tyranny to grow arms and legs, and regular elections interrupt that time.

And when tyranny can’t take root, regular elections have a cleansing effect on poor leadership and poor social decisions.

While it is somewhat optimistic to hope that regular elections will systematically surface the great and the good, at the very least they tend to throw out the trash while holding out the hope for something more.

It is therefore a mistake to see South Africa’s municipal elections this year as a simple trade-off between a pandemic risk and an election.

The proposal put to the Constitutional Court by the Independent Electoral Commission put at risk the institution of regular elections.

It asked the courts to say this election would not be free and fair if held in this pandemic.

If this argument were given weight, it would provide a basis for the perpetual delay of elections if the pandemic were protracted.

At threat, therefore, was the institution of regular elections – and all this implies for the emergence of tyranny.

The exercise of government power is well understood to pose a threat to society if it not properly regulated. This matter is not a simple and uncomplicated trade-off between possible super-spreader events and a simple election. It goes to the heart of the social order in South Africa.

Elections must happen, they must happen regularly and must not be interrupted at the whim of political incumbents. The pandemic imposes an obligation on South Africa’s institutions to make elections safe, not to stop them.

* Professor Alex van den Heever is chairperson in the field of social security systems administration and management studies at the Wits School Governance.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the DFA and Independent Media.

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