Producing a cadre of election management experts who can globally hold their own.
The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is a self-regulating entity, funded and accountable to Parliament and subject only to the Constitution of South Africa and its laws. Other organs of state, through legislative and other measures, must assist and protect, but not interfere with the IEC’s mandates to ensure the independence, fairness, impartiality, dignity and effectiveness of the commission.
It takes therefore a calm, selfless and steadfast person at the poll with an iron grip to remain impartial in exercising organisational powers and functions without fear, favour or prejudice.
Advocate Pansy Tlakula, chairperson of the IEC, is exactly such a person with a long-standing background in human rights and freedom of expression.
Before being appointed at the IEC in February 2002 as chief electoral officer, she served as a member of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) for six years and represented the SAHRC at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. In July 2005, she was appointed as a member of the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) with the portfolio of Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, responsible for Lesotho, Mauritius, Namibia, Swaziland, South Sudan and Sierra Leone.
As chairperson of the IEC, various challenges persist such as making sure the elections are available to all South Africans. “We’ve almost perfected the logistic part of our business, however our mandate goes beyond logistics. We have to strengthen electoral democracy and promote conditions conducive to free and fair elections. We find that as our democracy matures, we are more and more preoccupied with the remit of our mandate,” says Tlakula.
Political and organisational maturity among registered political parties and electoral administration has greatly advanced since the first democratic elections in 1994.
Leading the IEC to constantly improve on this, to streamline its services to stakeholders and reinforcing legal mandates, obligations and strategic objectives, really requires sturdy attention. “I listen and consult, but I am not afraid to take decisions,” she assures. “However, I’m a bit on the impatient side because I place a high premium on execution.”
Nearly 20 years into democracy, South Africa is comparing very favourably with other countries. “Our Constitution entrenches the right to freedom of expression and access to information as separate rights, and our Protection of Access to Information Act is one of the best in the world,” says Tlakula. “We also do not have laws such as criminal defamation, insult laws and the publication of false news which still exist in some other countries. The Protection of State Information Bill in its current form is a remarkable improvement from the earlier drafts, although there is still room for improvement.”
Since the IEC was established immediately after the demise of apartheid, it took a conscious decision to prioritise the eradication of racism and racial discrimination as its area of focus. “Racism is a very emotive subject and most of us would rather not talk about it. We can only address this problem if we acknowledge its existence, talk about it and come up with strategies to eradicate it,” she says.
Tlakula also points out that, “We have to tackle poverty and inequality, which unfortunately continue to manifest along racial lines. If we do not address this, history will judge us harshly.”
Commissioners of the IEC are only appointed by the president for a term of seven years. “I had the privilege of serving my country and continent in various capacities and I’m beginning to wind down my career. I’m looking forward to the day when I will concentrate on things that I like doing and not things that I have to do.”
Looking back at her profession, Tlakula says since not being an economist, chairing the board of the National Credit Regulator (NCR) was a steep learning curve.
“At that time, the organisation was new and we had to deal with powerful institutions such as banks and other lending institutions which gave lots of resistance.”
At the time reckless lending, unregulated micro-lending and over-indebtedness were endemic in South Africa. “The pioneering work that the NCR does has saved this country from the economic meltdown that resulted in banks being bailed out in other parts of the world. But it’s my time at the SAHRC which will remain the highlight of my career. As founding members, we built an organisation which, at that time, became one of the best institutions for the protection and promotion of human rights globally,” she says.
Tlakula holds a BProc degree from the University of the North, an LLB degree from the University of the Witwatersrand, an LLM degree from Harvard University and an honorary doctorate in legal studies from the Vaal University of Technology.
She is an admitted advocate of the High Court of South Africa and knew from a very early age she wanted to be a lawyer. “Interestingly, this was just instinctive because I had never seen a lawyer throughout my upbringing and career guidance was not offered at our schools.”
Tlakula grew up in Evaton in the Vaal where she completed her primary and most of her secondary education. She matriculated at Orlando High School in Soweto. Family is very important to her, with five siblings who are her best friends along with their spouses. She adores her two daughters and two-year-old grandson, but it’s her husband who has been, and continues to be, her pillar of strength.
“My work has always involved a lot of travelling and he has always been there for me and our children, particularly when they were young. I owe all my achievements to him.”
Born into a musical family, she enjoys spending time with her siblings singing and dancing. “I also enjoy cooking for extended family and friends, but my schedule has become so tight that I literally have to clear my diary and set time aside for this.”
Both her parents were school teachers who emphasised the importance of education throughout her upbringing. “We were, however, brought up by our paternal grandmother, who was highly religious and a matriarch and disciplinarian of note. She instilled in us the values of discipline, hard work and respect for the elders.”
Tlakula is also the former national director of the Black Lawyers Association, and served as the chairperson of the Council of the University of the North-West from 1997 to 2003. She is the chancellor of the Vaal University of Technology and also serves on the Board of the Bidvest Group Ltd.
She has received a number of awards including the Rapport/City Press Prestige Woman in 2006; the 2007 CEO Magazine Most Influential Woman Award in the government category; and received the Black Business Executive Circle Chairman’s Award in 2011.
Regardless of almost being suspended for an unfortunate incident regarding the procurement agreement of the IEC’s head office in Riverside Office Park building in Centurion, Adv. Tlakula remains above reproach when it comes to her credible time in serving the commission, the way she challenged the report of the Public Protector to protect the image of the IEC, and her relentless faith in the Constitution of South Africa.
As South Africa is nearing the national and provincial elections to be held on 7 May 2014, the IEC is responsible for the management of free and fair elections in all spheres of government: national, provincial and municipal. Tlakula says the 2014 elections will give South Africans an important opportunity to relive the magic of 1994, celebrating 20 years into democracy.
During the last two decades, the IEC has built a track record of conducting fair elections, earning respect far and wide, but South Africa’s democracy can only become stronger if the IEC remains beyond reproach with committed IEC officials.
“Transparency and openness play an important role in an election. As the election management body, it’s important to consult all political parties on all electoral processes and inform them of all the previous mistakes made.”
Preparations for an election take approximately two and a half years, involving outreach programmes and civic democracy education. “Elections are a national project and the IEC is intensifying training of its electoral staff to ensure they are able to apply the law correctly, fairly and equally.”
Tlakula adds that there is no perfect election with various risks involved, therefore each election has different and unique challenges. To ensure elections are run smoothly and fairly, the IEC is continuously engaging with all its stakeholders, in particular the political parties, impressing upon them the importance of observing the law and the proper code of conduct during campaigning.
“We have to ensure that all contesting parties are allowed to campaign freely without violence and intimidation. We also encourages civil society organisations to apply for accreditation as domestic observers and independent monitors, faith-based organisations to pray for peaceful elections, and law enforcement agencies to ensure they take action when the law is broken,” she says.
The IEC confirmed at a recent political meeting that it intends to print and distribute 5%-10% more ballot papers than the possible voters in each voting district.
“Registration and voting in South Africa is not compulsory,” she says. “Yet, 80% of eligible voters have voluntarily enlisted. Our voter turnout is above the international norm for both national and local government elections at 75% and 55% respectively.”
The IEC is geared with the task of protecting the election against potential voter fraud, ensuring correct printing of ballots and the safe storage thereof, choice of electoral officers, choice of voting stations, tallying of all votes and posting of results.
In view of democracy, the IEC should perform its duties with absolute integrity and fairness in giving South Africans the fair opportunity to use the power of their vote to choose freely who can best develop South Africa as a prosperous and globally competitive country.
South Africa compares favourably to the rest of the continent in terms of ensuring free and fair voting. “The results of all our previous elections have been accepted by the majority of the contesting parties, and those who are not satisfied with the results challenge them in the courts instead of taking to the streets,” says Tlakula.
Since the IEC’s first elections in 1999, it has won a number of high-profile international awards including its marketing campaign for municipal elections that won a number of bronze, silver and gold medals at the Loeries in 2006.
Under Tlakula’s leadership, the IEC results slip-scanning project won a CPSI award in 2009, and was first runner-up for the All Africa Innovation Award. “We are only as good as our last election,” Tlakula says with a smile.