An inquiry recommended on Tuesday delaying local government elections planned in South Africa on October 27, saying it doubted they can be free or fair during the coronavirus pandemic.
It was not immediately clear what impact a delay would have on the outcome of the elections. The governing African National Congress (ANC) is widely expected to win them though recent unrest has highlighted frustration with its achievements.
Voters are due to choose local, district and metropolitan councillors in the elections.
South Africa is in the grip of a severe third wave of Covid-19 infections and has fully vaccinated only around 3% of its 60 million population.
The inquiry found it was “not reasonably possible or likely” that the municipal vote would be free and fair in October, former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, who led the inquiry established by the Electoral Commission, told a news conference.
It recommended the election be deferred only once and to the earliest possible date, but not later than the end of February 2022.
“On all expert evidence many, many lives are likely to be lost unless we reach a certain level of community immunity. The nearest point of safety will be February 2022,” Moseneke said.
The inquiry’s recommendation is not binding on the Electoral Commission. The chair of the commission said he hoped for an agreement on the way forward in the next few days.
Political analysts have suggested the constitution may have to be amended for the vote to be delayed, since it requires that local government elections are held within 90 days of the expiry of the five-year term of a municipal council.
The last vote was in August 2016, when the ANC’s election performance was its worst since it came to power at the end of white minority rule in 1994.
The ANC was led at that time by former president Jacob Zuma, who was jailed this month after failing to appear before an anti-corruption inquiry. His jailing triggered some of the worst unrest of the post-apartheid era.
Moseneke suggested that amending the constitution on an ad-hoc basis could be undesirable and that such an amendment would require a 75% “super-majority” in parliament.
Another option could be to approach a court to grant an extension, he said, adding the issue was beyond the remit of his assignment.