Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Is the ANC still intent on disenfranchising expat South Africans? Regular readers of this blog will know that one of the first things that we wrote about was the passing of the election bill last year, which prevented overseas South Africans from voting in the election. We, rightly I think, argued that the passing of the bill was evidence of breathtaking cynicism on the part of the ANC, since it was clear that the majority of people living overseas were not likely to be natural ANC supporters. If popular estimates are to be believed there are over half a million South African's living abroad, a number that should account for well over 20 seats in Parliament. Since the ANC is hell-bent on achieving a two-thirds majority in Parliament (thereby allowing it to alter the constitution) eliminating those potential opposition votes must have seemed an enticing prospect.

So, imagine our surprise when the government announced that an amendment to the bill would be passed to allow expats to vote. Whilst not exactly a magnanimous gesture, we shouldn't have had to campaign for our right to vote in the first place, it nonetheless bespoke a genuine commitment to democracy which made our cynicism seem out of place. Nevertheless, there were a few wrinkles that aroused some unease. Those of us living overseas would have to wait until the election day was announced and then register with our nearest embassy before being allowed to vote, and it was not clear who of those living outside SA might be eligible to vote.

My suspicions have been confirmed over the last few days as it has become clear that what had initially seemed a major concession is in fact nothing of the sort. Quoting the IEC's website:

Who can vote:
Category A: South African citizens on government service
Category B: South African citizens temporarily absent from the republic
Are you temporarily absent-
- On a holiday?
- On a business trip?
- Attending a tertiary institution?
- On an educational visit?
- Participating in an international sporting event?

If you are overseas on a work permit or have emigrated, you cannot vote.

But as the government is well aware, the vast majority of expats are those that have come overseas (usually to Britain) on one or two year working-holiday visas. That half a million figure is not made up of embassy officials or university students, it consists largely of young South Africans pursuing the mighty pound who intend, once their visas expire, to return to SA. Of course, even if they aren't planning to return to SA, they should still be allowed to vote since they are citizens of South Africa. The ANC seems to feel that the right to vote is not an absolute right at all, but rather a conditional one which it may be extended or withdrawn at its discretion (see Murray's post here for more on why this is wrong).

But it seems that the ANC is finding it difficult to stomach even the minor concession of allowing students, sportsmen and holiday makers the right to vote. As I have discovered recently, the process of applying to vote is not an easy one. One needs to have already registered in South Africa, be in possession of an SA identity book and a valid passport. The process also involves navigating through a less than clear IEC webpage and then submitting a form, via fax or snailmail to an office in Pretoria. And this has to be done within two weeks of the date of the election being announced. What a rigmarole. There is no doubt in my mind that this process needn't be so complicated. The fact that it is suggests that the ANC is making things deliberately difficult. The icing on the cake comes courtesy of the South African High Commission in London, whose website carries the following blunt message on its front page:

In most cases South Africans abroad are not eligible to vote

I must say, this government is beginning to anger me with its high-handed dismissal of the rights of its citizens. Frankly, I don't care what the difficulties are in allowing expats to vote, the right to vote is guaranteed in the constitution and the government, if it took that document as seriously as it pretends to, would be moving heaven and earth to allow those several hundred thousand of us living overseas to vote. Is the fact that it hasn't evidence of its true nature?


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