Democracy must be free, fair and inclusive: Local government elections and representation of persons with disabilities

The country has just concluded its sixth democratic municipal elections since the start of democracy in 1994.  The 2021 Local Government Elections has been described as one of the most challenging elections by the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) having taken place in the midst of a global health crisis.

As the country attempts to recover from the health, social and economic shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wish to congratulate the people of South Africa for actively participating in shaping the democracy of this country by conducting a peaceful election.

The elections continue to demonstrate the power of democracy through free and fair practices. Equally, we must be concerned with creating an inclusive political culture for all. According to Section 19 of the South African Constitution, every adult citizen has the right to vote in elections for any legislative body established in terms of the Constitution, and to stand for public office, and, if elected, to hold office.

The participation and representation of persons with disabilities in political structures of governance is in line with the mandate for national, provincial and local government to promote disability equity as constituted in the White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (WPRPD). The right to active political participation and representation of persons with disabilities is the basis of the Self-Representation Framework – A framework informed by Strategic Pillar 1:  Removing Barriers to Access and Participation and Strategic Pillar 6:  Strengthening the Representative Voice of Persons with Disabilities of the (WPRPD).

Institutionalising the principle of self-representation of persons with disabilities is progressive in ensuring that legislative frameworks are strengthened to address discriminatory and exclusionary barriers. Evidence suggests that increased representation of persons with disabilities in national, provincial and local spheres of government have contributed to attitude shifts in the critical offices of governance.

It is for this reason that we welcome and applaud the interventions of the IEC in ensuring voters with disabilities are catered for through the Special Votes system. According to the final results of the IEC, a total of 741 721 applications for special votes were received, which was far more than the 293 693 applications received in 2011 when they were first introduced. Although there has been a significant increase in the number of voters with disabilities participating in the electoral process, an important aspect of political life is the ability to stand for public office and, if elected, to hold office.

The representation of persons with disabilities in political and governance structures is a key component to driving disability mainstreaming. The majority of persons with disabilities in South Africa have been excluded from the mainstream of society and have been prevented from accessing fundamental social, political and economic rights. Disability mainstreaming should be an integral aspect of all relevant strategies of sustainable development. More representation of persons with disabilities in governance recommits and takes into account the protection and promotion of the human rights of persons with disabilities in all policies and programmes as described in article 4 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Disability Mainstreaming is strengthened through the Self-Representation Framework which recognizes that an intersectional approach is key. This is achieved by integrating disability-sensitive measures into the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of all developmental policies and programmes.

In addition, supporting specific initiatives aimed at promoting disability-inclusive development and the equal enjoyment of human rights by all persons with disabilities.

I believe that increased participation and representation will be key to addressing a number of social ills facing persons with disabilities, particularly young women and youth with disabilities. There is a strong correlation between disability and poverty. Disability often leads to poverty. The full and effective participation of persons with disabilities is necessary to address the multiple discriminatory barriers they are faced with, and to ensure full political, social, health and economic rights.

We hope to see a noticeable improvement on the implementation of the Disability Framework for Local Government aimed at supporting and enabling local government to implement the Integrated National Disability Strategy (INDS) and other government policies on disability as an integral part of the local government mandate to dignify our communities.

We congratulate all newly elected public officials in local government and trust that they will serve their communities and the country. The 2021 Local Government Election has given us another opportunity to drive an inclusive democracy for all where participation is encouraged in shaping South Africa.

By Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Minister in the Presidency for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities.

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