The recent Pretoria High Court ruling on the right of expatriates to vote in the next elections is highly problematic. Leaving purely legalistic interpretations aside, the ruling raises difficult questions about democracy and the contrast between individual rights and the rights of a society.
Note that, if South Africans abroad were representative of the populace at large, the issue would be much less controversial. Statistically their vote would not affect the relative strengths of political parties, it would just increase the overall participation rate. It is well known that expats are a highly skewed sampling of the population. They are typically well educated, come from relatively wealthy backgrounds (by South African standards) and are predominantly white. Their reasons for leaving are primarily a combination of disgruntlement with the direction the country has taken since 1994 and the attraction of the proverbial “greener pastures”.
One popular criticism is that these people have abandoned South Africa and, having done so, can no longer ask for any rights in return. The retort from advocates of the expat vote is that this is a narrow patriotism; the world is now a global village and such notions of requiring residence for rights are antiquated.
This is a very convenient discourse. Many of the wealthy in South Africa believe that they have a right to live in different countries at the same time, with regular air travel between them, to sell their skills to the highest bidder and to participate in their country of citizenship at their whim.
South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world by any measure and the majority of the adult population is unable to take on even semi-skilled employment if it were to become available. There are vast shortages of skills in the public sector — teachers, nurses, technicians, engineers, advocates and more — whereas private sector services are unaffordably expensive for most.
The state, for obvious reasons, heavily subsidises university education and training. It is that university education which gives most expats their ticket into foreign countries, because of course the global village is an apartheid village: only some people are allowed to travel and even fewer allowed to settle where they choose after having been suitably vetted.
This kind of selective migration is widely recognised as having devastating effects on developing countries, but action against it has been slow. Those in power have no reason to act: developed countries benefit from skills they did not pay to develop, whereas developing country elites benefit from the relatively high salaries and superior standard of living emigration offers them.
The people who suffer are, as always, those at the bottom of the ladder. Deprived of more fundamental rights to basic services and a decent standard of living, they suffer the consequences of the excess consumption of the jet-setting classes anyway.
What does the self-justificatory discourse say to these facts? We have been told that the migration is temporary, that most individuals plan to come back. Yet we are still not seeing this mass return. Nor do we hear the logical implication of this claim: if most migration is temporary then at any given point in time it shouldn’t make a great deal of difference whether these individuals can vote or not.
We are also told that expats remit more than R5-billion a year. We are not told that the loss in taxes from the migration of these two million people is at least four times that amount.
In this context the demand for rights by expatriates is outrageous. Maybe it is time we ask what they are offering in return.
Seán Mfundza Muller is a South African studying for an MPhil Economics at Oxford. He intends to return to South Africa after his studies, but until then does not believe he has the right to vote
Also read Equal voice for expats