SA's democratic systems roll into place

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

South Africa is currently experiencing one of the most anticipated periods in its political life as citizens prepare to participate in the 2009 General Elections, writes Bathandwa Mbola.

It is now that the maturity of South Africa's young democracy will become evident.

The current government's term will come to an end as South Africans take to the polls to elect a new President and administration in a free and fair election.

It was only 15 years ago that change was ushered in when eligible citizens took to the polling stations in 1994 to cast their votes, paving the way for Nelson Mandela to become the first democratically elected President of the Republic.

Parliamentary elections are held every five years, where all South Africans aged 18 or older are eligible to vote, but must register to be included on the voter's roll to do so.

South Africa uses a proportional representation voting system that is based on political party lists at national and provincial levels. Voters do not vote for individuals, but for a political party which decides on members to fill the seats it has won.

This means that a registered political party receives a share of seats in Parliament in direct proportion to the number of votes cast for it in the election.

There were 23 million potential voters registered on the voters roll making it the highest recorded number of voters registered since the national common voter's roll was first compiled for the elections in 1999.

This was also the first time in 15 years that expatriates living abroad were eligible to vote. More than 80 000 notices were received from voters abroad intending to vote in the elections, according to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

The commission is tasked with the impartial management of free and fair elections at all levels of government.

The IEC is also mandated to conduct voter registrations, educational programmes about the electoral process and conduct the elections. This includes everything from printing ballot papers and training election marshals to ensuring that political parties adhere to the Electoral Act and IEC code of conduct.

Fair elections means, amongst others, that each citizen must not be allowed to vote more than once in the elections and that any person not entitled to vote must not be allowed to do so. No person may unduly influence other persons registering to vote or voting for a particular party or candidate.

IEC spokesperson, Kate Bapela said this period in South Africa's history was as significant as the events that unfolded in 1994.

She said it was an opportunity to prove that South Africa was not only a world class destination in terms of naturally stunning landscapes, and first-rate tourism and sporting facilities, but is was a serious option for business and investment due to its stable democracy.

On the importance of voting, Ms Bapela said it was the responsibility of South Africans citizens to participate in an election by registering and voting.

"As IEC, we encourage people to vote to defend and enhance constitutional democracy and to vote to ensure that they are part of the decision making in South Africa."

Following the close of the polls at 9pm on 22 April the IEC will begin the process of counting votes.

During this period, observers are to be present to ensure that the counting is done in a fair manner. According to the Constitution, the IEC must announce the voting results within seven days of election day.

Parliamentary spokesperson Luzuko Jacobs explained that Parliament's National Assembly is usually elected for a term of five years. The current Parliament dissolved on 13 April because the last general election was held on 14 April 2004.

However, the House can dissolve at an earlier date if the resolution is passed by the majority of the Members of Parliament in the National Assembly.

"Parliament is expected to provide its successor with reports on all issues that are not yet finalised and need attention. A task team has been set up to consider issues such as the swearing in of members, induction of new members, and office and housing needs of the next Parliament."

Following the announcement of the results, Chief Justice and the Head of the Constitutional Court Pius Langa will preside over the first meeting of the National Assembly where the new Members of Parliament are sworn in.

Once sworn in, the Chief Justice announces the procedure for the election of the President of the Republic and the Speaker.

The Chief Justice presides over the election of these two office-bearers. The Speaker in turn presides over the election of the Deputy Speaker.

If there is only one nomination for each of these positions, the nominated candidate is duly elected. If more than one nomination is received, the National Assembly elects the candidate by secret ballot.

The President, once elected, stops being a member of the National Assembly and must assume duty within five days.

Parliament is made up of two houses - the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces. There are 400 Members of Parliament in the National Assembly and 90 members of the National Council of Provinces.

The number of seats allocated to each party depends on the proportion of votes that parties get in the general election. Members of Parliament are appointed by their political parties from lists that the parties compile.

Under South Africa's democratic process, once taking leadership, the President will choose his Cabinet. Cabinet will then hold a meeting to outline a framework for the work of government which will be articulated in the State of the Nation Address.

According to Mr Jacobs, the overall swearing in of cabinet ministers is significant as shapes the parliament that will lead government in building a united, non-sexist, non-racial, prosperous and democratic South Africa.

Once the cabinet ministers are sworn in, it is then that parliament takes shape and that's when the ministers can exactitude their duties.

"This year's Presidential inauguration is going to be one of the largest celebration parties and inaugurations we have ever seen in the history of South Africa," said Mr Jacobs.

A glittering audience of Heads of State from all corners of the world, premiers and royalty and representatives from international organisations such as the United Nations, the African Union, the Southern Africa Development Community and others will attend the inauguration of the President.

They will be sworn in by Justice Langa and take an oath to serve the country.

Tens of thousands of people are expected to crowd into the grounds of the Union Buildings to witness the inauguration of the President.

Organisers have also placed 100 big television screens with live up-links across the country for those who cannot attend.