Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Casting my Vote
For those of you that were unaware, today marks the beginning of South Africa's 3rd democratic election. Although the actual election is scheduled to take place on the 14th of April, today was set aside for the casting of 'special' votes. In most cases this means the casting of overseas votes. As committed democrats, Murray and I, along with our friend Robyn Evans, went down to South Africa House in London today to cast our votes. In what follows I want to make a few general comments about my impressions of the process and then say something about the significance of today's vote.

It's probably worth reminding readers of the furore that erupted when Mbeki first tabled the election bill last year. In its initial incarnation the bill made no provision for South African's living overseas to vote, a fact which lead to a few raised eyebrows and a lot of comments about government cynicism. Murray and I were so incensed that we were moved to start this blog by way of protest. Actually, that's not strictly true, but the prospect of being disenfranchised was certainly a motivating factor in the establishment of Southern Cross. (You can read our early thoughts on the subject here, here and here). At the time we felt that the election bill, as proposed, betrayed both a deep level of govt cynicism and an unwillingness to take seriously its responsibilities, under the Constitution, to do everything reasonable to allow people to vote. We were pleasantly surprised therefore when Mbeki proposed an amendment to the bill which made provision for the casting of overseas votes. Nevertheless, as I argued at the time, the amendment to the bill was not nearly so magnanimous as it seemed. The vote was only extended to those South African's temporarily overseas, a group that consisted mostly of holiday-makers, students and sportsmen. To my mind this was evidence of further cynicism since it failed to take account of the tens of thousands of South African's living in Britain on short term working holiday visas and the many more living in foreign countries on dual passports or as permanent residents. At the time I had this to say about the whole affair:

'Mbeki garnered lots of good publicity when he appeared to concede that expats have the right to vote but, as it stands, that concession doesn't amount to very much. Still, he got the good publicity and doesn't have to worry about several hundred thousand expat South Africans, so what does he care..'

Murray meanwhile posted this excellent article on why the right to vote should not be contingent on how patriotic one is; just in case anybody was tempted to argue the idiots case that South African's overseas should not be allowed to vote because they've displayed insufficient commitment to the new democracy.

The other problem with the amended election bill was that it made the securing of the right to vote overseas a needlessly complicated and horrendously bureaucratic affair. As it stands, before I could vote today, I had to fax an IEC form to Pretoria (whilst retaining the fax confirmation slip), fill out a request for a special vote (which had to be taken to the High commission) and bring both my Passport and ID Book with me and, as I shall relate further down, even this was not considered good enough. Now, whilst we should all be aware of the problem of electoral fraud, this process seemed designed with the express purpose in mind of deterring overseas South Africans. An impromptu survey conducted in Exeter College's, very international, graduate common room a few weeks ago suggests that most people living overseas are accustomed to simply voting by post or, at worst, to having to vote in their embassy's on presentation of a valid passport. In fact a Greek friend of ours revealed that just before her country's recent election one of the political partys flew her back to Athens to cast her vote. Obviously that is beyond South Africa's means but it does give some indication of what is possible when a country is genuinely committed to enfranchising its people.

So, enough of the pre-amble. What of the election itself? It was, it has to be said, a rather inauspicious event. Murray and I were initially told that we couldn't vote because our passports were stamped with work permits and not student visas. We tried protesting that we were indeed students, as evidenced by our Oxford student cards and that the offending stamp clearly stated that we were not allowed to work in Britain. The officials attending to us were having none of it though and I began to fear that we may have made the trip down to London for nothing. None of the joyous scenes that I had been expecting, rather, it seemed that casting my vote was going to be a bad tempered and acrimonious affair. Fortunately another official was able to intervene on our behalf and persuaded the first to phone the IEC in Pretoria and the British Home Office to determine whether the stamp in our passport was in fact a student visa and whether it was sufficient to allow us to vote. After 45 minutes wait spent idly watching the smattering of people who had turned up to vote we were informed that, 'yes' we were students and, 'yes' we were allowed to vote. I was irritated that the High Commission's staff had been so badly briefed as not to be able to identify one of the stamps used by the British Home Office to indicate student status. It was evidence, again, I thought, of the failure of the state to take seriously the process of overseas voting.

Nevertheless, I have some sympathy for the staff. They appeared to be bearing the brunt of a lot of frustration and anger from, it has to be said, white South Africans who obviously hadn't bothered to acquaint themselves with the voting procedure and had failed to fill out and fax off the necessary documentation nor even, in some cases, to bring a valid passport with them. What was particularly depressing, not least for its predictability, was how often irritated whites resorted to snide comments about the elections, the government and the ability of the staff. I too have had misgivings about many of the processes surrounding this election but there is simply no excuse for the sort of intolerance, and indeed outright racism, which I saw on display today. There were moments when I felt deeply uncomfortable on behalf of my fellow white South Africans

The good news is that once the initial hiccup had been overcome the actual voting itself was straight forward enough. That said, I was concerned to discover that, on casting my vote, the ballot paper was placed inside a sealed envelope which was in turn placed inside a further sealed envelope on which I had to write my full name, identity number and voting district number. I enquired from on of the election officials of the need for this, seemly, very irregular practice and was informed that it was necessary to ensure that only those registered to vote actually did so. I have to say that this explanation didn't do much to allay my fears. Surely the whole point of having a ballot in secret is to make it impossible to determine which party people vote for. I took this matter up with my politics tutor this afternoon and he confirmed that it was a, 'deeply undemocratic procedure.'

Taking my reporters hat off for the moment, what can we deduce from today's events. I think the first point is that the ANC, whether by accident or design, effectively disenfranchised a vast number of South Africans. I was very surprised at how few people turned up this morning but, on checking SABC, have discovered that only 624 people registered to vote in Britain. Given that there are allegedly well over 200 000 Suth African's living in Britain this is either evidence of apathy on a vast scale or the fact that people were put off by the complexities of the registration process or simply weren't allowed to vote because they were on working holidays. Since it requires roughly 50 000 votes to secure a single seat in parliament, the ANC has ensured that at least 4 seats will not be going to the opposition. (And yes I am assuming that most people living overseas will not vote ANC. If you have a problem with this, post a comment and I'll respond). Secondly, South African's have a long way to go before we approach anything like a normal society. I've already mentioned the appaling behaviour of some of the white voters but I was also struck by a throw away remark made in the course of a conversation with one of the officials. I'd asked her how she was finding living in Britian to which she responded, 'I hate it. You people seem to like it here but this place is not for us.' Not an offensive comment by any means, but revealing, in its way, of the type of assumptions that South Africans carry about each other. The people and conversations observed today hardly constitute a representative sample but they point to the problem that bedevils relations between South Africas, namely an inabilty to appreciate or even understand the outlook of the other. Finally, and in slight contradiction to my previous point, I was struck by just how normal, indeed bureaucratic, the whole procedure was. Very little hoopla attended the voting. No parades, no pressmen or TV cameras, no throngs of well wishers. Just another small country having its voting day. Which, I suppose, is just as it should be.

To end on an upbeat note. After completing the voting process, Murray and I met Robyn (who had a different visa stamp and thus hadn't gone through the palava that we had), thanked the voting officials and especially the woman who'd been so obtuse initially (she relented and smiled back at us), and went about our day. I think we felt proud to have done our civic duty, perturbed by the irregularities and bad behaviour we'd seen, but pleased to have made all the effort. Role on another ten years of democracy.


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