The Electoral Commission plans to clear the backlog of all outstanding by-elections on 11 November 2020.
The scheduling of by-elections in 96 wards in 56 municipalities follows the announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa that the country is to move to alert level 1 which will include the lifting of restrictions on political activities.
The scheduling also follows consultations with the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs as well as represented political parties via a special National Party Liaison Committee meeting held yesterday.
By-elections have not been held since March 2020 following the declaration of a National State of Disaster and the imposition of the lockdown restrictions intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Since then, 96 ward vacancies in 56 municipalities have occurred including two dissolved councils in the Northern Cape where PR candidates must also be elected (9 PR seats in Phokwane and 3 PR seats in Renosterberg)
To clear the backlog, the Electoral Commission plans to hold all vacant ward by-elections simultaneously on 11 November 2020. By-elections are scheduled in all nine provinces across 461 voting districts affected over 600 000 registered voters.
The by-elections will be held under strict new COVID-19 protocols aimed at ensuring the safety of voters, election staff, party agents, observers and other stakeholders. These include implementing strict social distancing practices outside and inside voting stations along with the use of hand sanitisers as voters enter and exit the voting station.
Voters, election staff and all those entering the voting station will be required to wear a mask at all times. Voters are also encouraged to bring their own pens to mark their ballot papers although pens will be provided and sanitized after each use.
The Electoral Commission expressed its confidence that these measures would allow for free and fair elections to proceed in a safe environment.
"The decision by the Commission to approach the Electoral Court for postponements of by-elections since March was not taken lightly," explained Chairperson of the Electoral Commission Mr Glen Mashinini.
"But given the risk to human life and restriction of political activity the Commission had no choice but to act responsibly and postpone the by-elections. Now that circumstances have improved, we are ready to give voters their political voice back."
Chief Electoral Officer Mr Sy Mamabolo said special targeted communications and education programme would be undertaken in the affected wards to teach voters about the new safety protocols and to encourage participation. Additional training for elections staff was also planned to familiarize staff with the new protocols and processes.
Mr Mamabolo noted that the reduction in alert level and lifting of restrictions on political activities provided a window to the Electoral Commission to clear the backlog of by-elections ahead of next year's scheduled Municipal Elections.
"Ward council vacancies are not ordinarily filled during the final six months leading to Municipal Elections. South Africa will continue to hold by-elections for all the wards that become vacant until May 2021. However, holding all outstanding by-elections together on one day will help the Electoral Commission and political parties to focus their attention and energies on one day and to clear the backlog in one go," he said.
By-elections are usually grouped together where feasible to allow for efficiencies and better coordination.
In the lead up to the by-elections on 11 November, the Electoral Commission will engage with key stakeholders including political parties through the national, provincial and municipal party liaison committee structures to consult them on the new practices.
Mr Mashinini said while the COVID-19 conditions had improved sufficiently to enable the holding of elections, the circumstances still demanded the utmost vigilance and conformity to health protocols by election staff, political parties, candidates, observers and other stakeholders.
"We remain ever hopeful that a cure will be found soon. But we cannot delay political rights indefinitely and we need to be ready to conduct municipal elections between August and November next year.
"The by-elections on 11 November will give us all an opportunity to work together to test and if necessary to refine our safeguards," he said. "It is within all of us as South African citizens to positively participate in measures to combat the further spread of corona virus, especially during voting."
South Africa is one of over 70 countries and territories to have postponed elections this year due to the coronavirus according to statistics compiled by International IDEA.
A full list of the wards to be contested on 11 November 2020 is attached.