Expatriates vote for half an MP

Just over 26 000 South Africans have registered to vote abroad, enough to constitute barely half a member in Parliament. And only a fraction of those registered will vote.

About 44 000 votes constituted a seat in Parliament in the last general election and the much-vaunted international vote will barely make a dent.

Yet political parties are fighting for scraps when it comes to the votes of expats.

Precisely 26 701 South Africans living abroad have registered to vote, according to figures provided by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to the Mail & Guardian this week, though the estimated number of South Africans abroad is generally put at more than two million.

The Freedom Front Plus (FF+) waged an arduous court battle to enable South Africans to vote abroad in 2009, and this time around would-be voters can register as well, thanks to the party's efforts.

Novelty votes
The novelty of international voters has inspired much action from South Africa's political parties.

The ruling ANC sent senior leaders on international missions to lobby for votes with South African communities abroad, including dispatching deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa to woo voters in Australia.

The opposition Democratic Alliance has an extensive online and social media campaign targeting international voters.

But the numbers they are chasing are minuscule. In one example, the United Kingdom has about 240 000 eligible South African voters, according to Homecoming Revolution chief executive Angel Jones. But only 10 000 registered to vote abroad.

To do so was simple if one was already registered in the country. A VEC10 form had to be filed online by March 12 advising the IEC of one's intention to vote abroad, which was easy enough for Lihle Mtshali, who lives in New Jersey in the United States.

"This was a painless process as I filed online and received confirmation that I could vote just a few days later," she told the M&G.

Voting obstacles
Those South Africans who are not registered have to travel to their closest embassy or consulate to register and make the trip back again to vote.

Other obstacles for South Africans abroad who want to vote include:

  • The massive distances to voting stations in some cases. Voting stations have to be South African territories such as embassies or consulates, IEC spokesperson Kate Bapela said.
  • Voting day for South Africans abroad is April 30 – a Wednesday – meaning those wanting to vote have to take time off work to do so.
  • A green ID book is required to register to vote if one is not already registered in South Africa, in addition to a passport. Many South Africans abroad only keep the latter.

Monty Naude, a 30-year-old South African IT technician who lives in Nottingham in the UK, decried the process. "To register I will have to travel for four hours at a cost of £50, and then travel again to vote later on," he said.

It was slightly easier for Catherine Dowie, who lives in Malaysia with her husband. Their voting station is in Kuala Lumpur, just an hour away.

Australian contingent
Perth in Australia is home to 30 000 South Africans, according to the Australian population census, but it's 4 000km away from the high commission in Canberra. Thus, just 1 243 South Africans registered in the entire country. Other South African hot spots – Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide – are also far from Canberra.

"People are not concentrated in the same area," chairperson of the international relations subcommittee Obed Bapela told the M&G. "The distance discouraged many of them from registering in the first place."

The Democratic Alliance's Marike Groenewald, director of strategic markets, agreed and pointed out a similar problem in Canada where many South Africans live in Vancouver on the west coast – thousands of kilometres away from the voting station in Ottawa in the east.

"People felt disillusioned by that and said they couldn't incur the cost or take [days] off work," she said.

The numbers parties are chasing abroad are very low, given the latest figures from the IEC. But, politically, the international vote is an important litmus test for parties gauging their popularity with an influential group of people.

Negative perceptions
South Africans who live abroad are characterised as intensely negative about the country's prospects, the parties the M&G spoke to agreed. But there were nuances within that.

"People overseas are overwhelmingly positive about the DA," said Groenewald. "I think it means a high turnout for the DA from those numbers."

Bapela said that South African voters in Britain, China, Cuba and countries in Africa would vote for the ANC.

"We're banking on the change of sentiments. Once you leave South Africa your picture about the country changes. You realise that things are not that bad and the ANC is not destroying the country," Bapela said.

It depends on who you talk to, though.

The FF+'s Pieter Mulder was surprised by the sentiments he encountered among his support base of conservative Afrikaners abroad.

"A lot of them were not informed. My experience from a few meetings there is they're still 10 years behind in their political thinking," he said. "They only see one side of South Africa and are very negative."

Challenging territories
Australia and the US are likely to present a challenge for the ANC because of this, Bapela admitted. The DA and the FF+ are stronger in these countries.

"We know a lot of people who went to Australia hold negative views about South Africa, particularly the adult population. The students who have been sent to study through bursaries by private companies will vote for the ANC," said Bapela.

The DA's Groenewald noted a similar trend.

"I think there's some generational thing going on there. In the queries we received the older generation who left earlier were definitely quite negative. They feel very disillusioned and angry, asking: Why is it so difficult for me to vote? No one wants to make it easier for me."

Younger South Africans, particularly young professionals, were different. "They say: 'This is just part of my career. At some point I'm going to return. We're hopeful for South Africa.' People are hungry to be communicated with overseas," Groenewald said.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.
Mmanaledi Mataboge
Guest Author

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