Francine Higham: SA is our home – please help us vote abroad in these crucial elections

If South Africa is to succeed in a globalised world, it really has no option but to welcome its citizens moving abroad and make it easier for them to vote.

Whether in Lagos or Paris, South Africans are carving out futures for themselves while at the same time spreading our country’s influence across the globe. They take with them the ideas, products and skills they acquired at home, strengthening ties and making it possible for South African firms to sell their products around the world. This is essential if we are to escape from the low-growth, low-skill economy that has trapped so many millions of our people in poverty and unemployment. One thing we all have in common is that South Africa is our home. We treasure our country’s unique and vibrant people and its beautiful landscapes. And so, it pains us, to see it destroyed by a government that is greedy and corrupt; that in its 20 years in power has failed to address the urgent issues of poverty, job creation, economic growth and crime. South Africans deserve so much more. So, it is with much eagerness that we look forward to the 2019 National Election when we can cast our vote for a government that will take our country forward. But South Africans abroad can only vote at a South African foreign mission. Most countries only have one, and it’s often far from where many South Africans live. For some it can take two days to get to an embassy, and with Election Day most likely to take place on a weekday it means we have to take leave from work (it’s obviously not a public holiday as it is in South Africa). Additional to this we require BOTH a South African ID book and a passport with a requirement to fill in a VEC10 form on the IEC’s website in a 15-day time-frame once the date of the election is announced. If I’m a first-time voter I must travel to a South African foreign mission to register, but for many this has been a wasted effort as there’s little to no information about the overseas registration process on either the IEC’s website or the Department of International Relations and Co-Operation’s (Dirco) website, emails and phone calls go unanswered. If lucky you may find an official who is informed about the process to allow you to vote. However, this is not guaranteed. For example, the embassy in Berlin is chasing people away and the embassy in Berne is incorrectly telling people to post their registration applications. In 2014, only 18,132 South Africans abroad cast their votes at foreign missions around the world. It’s a testament to their endurance and patriotism that as many as this completed all the steps to make their voice heard. After that election, the Democratic Alliance Abroad drafted a report on the IEC and Dirco’s failings in administering the elections that year which was shared with the IEC. This included polling stations not opening on time, a printed out voter’s roll for 9,863 registered voters in London, misinformed staff, four-hour long queues in Dubai and London. The ballots from Canada, Cuba, Spain and the DRC did not even arrive back in SA in time to be counted! This is nothing short of a scandal. Since then, at numerous IEC National Party Liaison Committee meetings we have also requested that the IEC expand voting for those abroad by increasing the number of voting stations to cities where large populations of South Africans live, and by holding the election on a weekend. We also called for votes abroad to be held at a much earlier date than the election day in South Africa to ensure ballots arrive back in South Africa in time to be counted. ( You may wonder why we haven’t asked for postal voting? if granted, it would need to be made available to those living in South Africa as well, and unfortunately it is a voting mechanism that is very susceptible to fraud. As such, none of the South African political parties are in support of it.) While the IEC have indicated a favourable consideration of these requests, so far they have shown no indication that they’ve taken the necessary steps to ensure they are implemented. When pressed through Parliamentary questions they’ve stated that the decision is up to Dirco. In March this year, the IEC and Dirco announced officially that South Africans abroad can register to vote at foreign missions. We welcomed this announcement, only to receive numerous reports from individuals around the world informing us that they were being turned away and told that they couldn’t register. According to emails sent to us from South Africans abroad, at least 14 foreign missions have rejected attempts by voters to register. Yet, in a Parliamentary question asked by the DA in October to Lindiwe Sisulu as Minister for Dirco, the response was that none of the foreign missions were “not allowing South Africans to register to vote.” So, either the IEC are not conveying our concerns to Dirco, or they are, and Dirco are misrepresenting the truth, but the fact remains that so far there is no sign that this issue is being resolved and the election is less than six months away. On 1 June, DA MP, Mike Waters, introduced an Electoral Amendment Bill as a Private Members Bill (PMB) to Parliament calling for the following:

  1. All South African citizens to be permitted to register to vote on production of a valid ID document only.
  2. The day designated for overseas casting of votes to necessarily fall on a weekend.
  3. South Africans overseas be permitted to vote for the Provincial Legislatures
  4. Voting stations overseas to not be limited to consulates, embassies or high commissions, allowing for more remote voters to be able to vote without travelling great distances.
  5. Vote counting procedures to properly account for differences in time zones when considering deadlines.
The portfolio committee on Home Affairs flatly rejected the bill. The co-operation agreement signed by IEC and Dirco on the 16 November failed to address our requests to expand voting abroad. Instead it simply stated that Dirco “shall avail the premises of the missions for registration, voting and any other function that needs to be performed for successful voter registration and voting on the designated days and times”. The IEC have had more than enough time to take the necessary steps to expand voting abroad for all South Africans. Our suggestions and requests have not been unreasonable, but the IEC’s inaction, and Dirco’s inefficiency makes one wonder if there is not a deliberate attempt to limit voting abroad. Suggested Additional Voting Stations for South Africans Abroad
Country City Est. SA Population Nearest Voting Station Distance by Car
United States Miami, Florida 10,000 Washington DC 14 h 54 min (1 695,7 km)
United States Austin, Texas 9,000 Chicago 16 h 9 min (1 813,1 km)
Canada Vancouver 6,000 Toronto 40 h (4 173,7 km)
Australia Brisbane 40,133 Canberra 12 h 24 min (1 190,1 km)
Australia Perth 41,008 Canberra 39 h (3 718,3 km)
Australia Sydney 43,059 Canberra 3 h 2 min (286,0 km)
Australia Melbourne 27,188 Canberra 6 h 52 min (662,7 km)
Australia Adelaide 6,609 Canberra 12 h 10 min (1 159,0 km)
New Zealand Auckland 30,612 Wellington 7 h 35 min (646,2 km)
United Kingdom Edinburgh 10,607 London 7 h 19 min (411,0 mi)
United Kingdom Newcastle 3,000 London 5 h 1 min (465,5 km)
United Kingdom Bristol 24,000 London 2 h 41 min (192,3 km)
United Kingdom Manchester / Liverpool 13,000 London 4 h 20 min (359,2 km)
Total Est. Population 264,216
* Figures based on local country census data. We welcome the IEC’s announcement that there will be a special voter registration weekend from the 1 – 4 February 2019 but considering that there was no registration weekend in March 2018 when there was one in South Africa, and that in 2014 there were two voter registration weekends abroad, this may be too little too late. Unless the IEC and Dirco show a genuine commitment to ensuring the rights of ALL South Africans abroad to vote by increasing the number of voting stations and holding overseas voting on a weekend, while taking immediate steps to resolve the issues experienced by those attempting to register at South Africa’s foreign missions, I fear that the 2019 national election may not be deemed free and fair. In the meantime, we’ll keep fighting to make sure that every South African citizen abroad is able to fulfil their constitutional right to vote and keep our country’s democracy alive. South Africa is a great country, and its potential is immense – our votes for its future are as important as any others. DM  Francine Higham is the leader and one of the founding members of the DA Abroad, a volunteer organisation and the official overseas supporter network for the Democratic Alliance. She is originally from the Eastern Cape, and currently lives in London where she works as Digital Consultant.