TIGHT SHIP CAPTAIN: Pansy Tlakula says the IEC is mandated to apply electoral laws equally and fairly. Circa. 07/2008. © Unknown.
TIGHT SHIP CAPTAIN: Pansy Tlakula says the IEC is mandated to apply electoral laws equally and fairly. Circa. 07/2008. © Unknown.

If there were going to be any special songs for Thursday and Friday, they would have been composed this past week.

Last Thursday witnessed the watershed by-elections in certain parts of the country, where the new kid on the political block, the Congress of the People (Cope) took part - and virtually wiped the floor with the ruling ANC.

The ANC had missed the deadline for registering their candidates, and for their trouble were barred from taking part in the elections by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

The next day the Pretoria high court would rule in favour of the political minnows, allowing them the use of their name, much to the chagrin of the ruling party, who had initiated the court action.

On Thursday, as people elsewhere in the country moved political house from the ANC to the Shikota brainchild that is now officially Cope, it was business as usual on the 5th floor of Election House, 260 Walker Street in Sunnyside, Pretoria.

Arriving 30 minutes before the scheduled 11 o'clock meeting with the chief electoral officer, Advocate Pansy Tlakula, one is momentarily shunted off to the boardroom.

One section of the walls is a miniature monument to Tlakula's vast body of work, sagging from awards, many of them bestowed on her for being "an influential woman".

There's even an honorary doctorate, conferred on Faith Dikeledi Tlakula by the Vaal University of Technology.

One or two more awards from faith-based organisations in the Vaal stand as if in testimony to the claim by the editor of Sunday World, Charles Mogale, that he was a desk-mate of Tlakula's in Evaton, the area's most historic township.

Of course she remembers him, she chuckles.

And when she talks further, voila! - her Rs are deeply pronounced in the distinct Basotho-speak.

Clichéd as it may sound, she's as cool as a cucumber when asked if she's not afraid her decision to exclude the ANC from the by-elections may land her in the bad books of the belligerent elements in the ruling party: "We are guided in what we do by the law. We should apply that law equally and fairly. We treat all parties equally. The law requires us to do that."

The ANC, like all parties, were aware of the dates: "We publish a timetable. The law requires us to do that so we don't take anyone by surprise."

You can't bend rules, Tlakula says softly.

The bottom line, in her book, is: "If they comply, they are in; if they don't comply, they are out."

Tlakula also sits on the much-maligned board of the SABC. One gets the feeling that if she headed it too, she'd do it by the book the same way she's doing with the electoral laws.

Somewhere in the orderly clutter of her desk is a dog-eared copy of the Electoral Act, a trusted companion, in her line of duty, that's used with the same frequency writers consult the dictionary.

She does not know the election date yet, but runs a tight ship that will be ready by April 14, 2009: "The significance of the date is that the term of office of the current Parliament ends then. Elections must be held within 90 days of this date," she says.

Tlakula says "this is not the first time a party has taken us to court".

Parties have a constitutional right to challenge the IEC decision if they feel aggrieved, she adds, citing Reverend Kenneth Meshoe's African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), which took them as far up as the Constitutional Court, as an example.

"As we do this interview, the court is sitting," she says, regarding the ANC-Cope legal dispute over the latter's use of the name.

She's satisfied with the work they do: "I can say without any fear of contradiction that we run and conduct a professional election. This however, does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that we run a perfect election."

There isn't one - an operationally flawless election - anywhere in the world.

But this does not mean that, bar minor operational challenges, the elections cannot be free and fair.

There are lessons from Zimbabwe, Kenya and Ghana, which recently held elections. Just across the Limpopo, "they are operationally strong". She enthuses over the level of efficiency of their electoral staff.

"Our people can learn a lot from the Zimbabweans," says Tlakula, mindful that conditions must also be conducive to holding free and fair elections.

In addition to hosting the world, the IEC also sends staff all over the globe. One of their drivers was in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for their elections, she says, illustrating the point that it does not matter where in the organisational rung a staffer is.

"We're passionate about what we do," she says. "We take our responsibility very seriously. As patriots we want to ensure that we produce an election that is credible.

"At the end of the day, we want to produce an outcome that will make our country a shining example among nations of the world.

"Whoever wins an election, when they go out, should be seen not to have stolen an election. They must walk proud."

This is Tlakula's sixth year at Election House, and to the 144 registered parties, her mantra is simple - compliance. She's travelled extensively on IEC business and is not aware of women chief electoral officers anywhere else.

She was at the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) when it was headed by Professor Barney Pityana: "We were the first members.

"My passion remains human rights," she says. "I see voting rights as very much part of human rights."

She's also a member of the African Commission on Human and People's Rights, an organ of the African Union.