Vuma Mashinini.  Picture: THE TIMES
Glen Mashinini concedes this year’s local government elections will be a 'litmus test' for the Electoral Commission of SA. Picture: THE TIMES

SOWETO-born Vuma Glenton Mashinini made his grand debut on Thursday, officially announcing the launch of the 2016 municipal elections.

As chairman of the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) he presides over an organisation that, until three years ago, enjoyed a sterling reputation and commanded respect, trust and confidence both in SA and abroad.

But the IEC has not had an easy ride since its former chairwoman, Pansy Tlakula, was implicated in a building lease scandal in 2013, and was stuck in the shadow of her controversy until her resignation at the end of the following year.

In the interim, the IEC was embroiled in allegations of irregularity over the hotly contested by-elections in the Tlokwe municipality in the North West. The Constitutional Court judgment ruling that the by-elections were not free and fair was the first by the highest court in the land against the commission — and a serious indictment, since the IEC is meant to be independent and impartial, subject only to the Constitution and the law.

The finding of voting irregularities against the body overseeing the country’s national, provincial and local polls came months before the local government election and has eroded the IEC’s long-held reputation for fairness. The judgment described the commission’s failure to explain how people were irregularly registered to vote as "troubling".

Even more disturbing was the fact that the IEC had conducted its own inquiry that uncovered the irregularities, but deemed them insignificant as they would not have swayed the final outcome of the election. This flew in the face of its stated mandate to be impartial and to exercise its powers and perform its function "without fear, favour or prejudice".

Turning to Mashinini, his appointment as Tlakula’s successor was not without controversy. His past includes a stint as a deputy chief electoral officer of the commission, but also as a special projects adviser to the Presidency.

Opposition parties and a panel headed by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, who interviewed Mashinini for the job, raised questions over his proximity to President Jacob Zuma, who was ultimately responsible for appointing the new IEC chairman. According to the Electoral Commission Act, the public protector also forms part of the panel.

The panel was eventually satisfied that Mashinini’s proximity to the president, whose appointments are often questionable and self-serving, was "on a professional basis" and not a political one.

On Thursday, Mashinini himself conceded that this year’s local government elections would be a "litmus test" for his organisation. He moved to assure political parties and citizens that the "the checks and balances" put in place over the past 20 years continued to endure "without fear of contradiction; the fundamentals of this institution remain intact and rock solid".

He rounded off by saying that South Africans could safely proclaim that "we are still flying high the banner of electoral integrity, excellence, and free and fair elections".

"Further, we send a resounding message to the world at large that we South Africans remain a beacon of pre-eminence in the conduct of electoral democracy," he said.

Strong and inspiring words, even for the rhetoric-weary.

Given the tough election campaign all parties face this year and the risk such intense contestation poses, the potential for fiddling looms large.

Mashinini cited the "busing in" of voters as among the threats to keep an eye open for, as well as the kinds of irregularities identified in the Tlokwe municipality.

Mashinini and his organisation will surely be tested, but while he has been judged by association, he is perfectly positioned to demonstrate whether the criticism of him is well-founded.

Mashinini describes himself as a "perpetual optimist". In that spirit, he should be allowed to do his work and be given the benefit of the doubt. Time will tell whether it is deserved.

• Marrian is political editor