Wednesday, February 18, 2009

SAns overseas should be allowed to vote

By Rod MacKenzie (SA expat in China)

I sat with the phone pressed to my ear, waiting to query one of those wonderful tannies at the SA Embassy I have spoken to before and also met: “How do we go about voting in the South African elections in April?”

I was looking forward to hearing that strong Afrikaans accent. The accent was always immediately reminiscent of vetkoek, koeksusters and Frisco coffee served on the stoep and “agh, hoe gaan dit met die lewe, Mrs Mac?” which I experienced with some of my mother’s Afrikaans friends when I was a boy growing up in Boksburg. (I remember with astonishment getting biltong flakes served on buttered scones, sometimes with jam too, nogal.) The embassy official was going to say something like, “ja, how kin I halp yew?” I knew I would be tempted to say, “howzit, tannie, vreeslik jammer om tannie te pla,” then let my swak Afrikaans fizzle out as I make my query.

I know I will just respectfully say, “good morning ma’am, can I…” instead, to my surprise, the Chinese lady screening me on the phone came back with a vague “no, they have not been given any information on the voting” and won’t let me speak to any of the South African staff. This is most unusual.

It must be related to my query about voting in the elections. I left a message about my ballot with the Chinese lady. She was reluctant to even take a message. I think she took down my details just to get rid of me and sounded embarrassed or uncomfortable. I also tried leaving a message on another service number that allowed me to leave messages. The mail box was full.

And my head was empty.

The Americans recently had their election. Americans, as their birth right, most certainly had a procedure in place to vote from Shanghai. All were dumbfounded as to why South Africans cannot.

One American, a high-powered attorney working for an international company with a large branch in Shanghai, emailed me to say: “Wow. Although I understand the politics here, this is surely a backwards step for representative democracy in South Africa. I cannot think of any other developed country that disenfranchises citizens living abroad”. The Americans in Shanghai had their votes in before the general populace in the US had begun voting; that’s how efficient the procedure was.

As a test, I phoned up the British Consulate in Shanghai with the same question. I could barely tell the lady was Chinese, her wonderful “I dare say” BBC accent was almost crisply spot on, my dear chap. I had not even finished the question when she was already saying, “Yes of course, sir, here is…” and gave me the procedure, along with the following website information to download the relevant documents: www.electoralcommission.org.uk so that any citizen, any British citizen living abroad can vote. It’s a matter of honour, dear fellow. For Queen, country, fish and chips and Guinness beer.

If any reader wishes to test the validity of my experiences of the SA and British Consulates, be my guest. Here are the numbers along with the international dialing codes:

South African Consulate: (86 21) 535 94977

British Consulate: (86 21 ) 627 97650

South African friends who were deployed outside the country while serving in the SA army in 1994 told me they had a special vote. Their ballots were handed in before the general populace went to the booths. That was the year Nelson Mandela was voted into office and our fledgling democracy was begun.

That has now changed. Why?

But there does seem to be some hope.

There have, incredulously, been several SA citizens abroad who have gone to the extreme of taking to court their right to vote for their country. The applications to get what should be a simple, inarguable right to vote is what I find incredulous, never mind the heavy weather of proving that you are not a citizen who, in effect, has betrayed or deserted his country by leaving, be it long term or short term.

However, in commenting on the judgement passed down, that the Independent Electoral Commission should do everything in its power to help all citizens vote, who “should” be allowed to vote, the language is vague and contradictory. Pierre de Vos, professor of constitutional law at the University of the Western Cape said in his analysis of the judgement and motions: “The judgement is unfortunately not a monument to clarity and clear constitutional reasoning. Acting Judge PZ Ebersohn is clearly not a constitutional scholar and it shows. What I find surprising is that the judge declared invalid the section that allows government officials and their families who are “on Government Service” to vote if they are absent from the Republic — perhaps on the assumption that it infringed on the right to equality before the law guaranteed in Section 9 of the Constitution.”

Professor de Vos went on to comment on the vagueness of the judgement and its findings on what was unconstitutional: “This does not mean legislation will have to allow every South African citizen living abroad the right to vote. There might be justifiable reasons to exclude citizens who now permanently live abroad from voting and this judgment does not address the rights of those citizens to vote. What is clear is that the legislation now being attacked does not seem to make a logical and justifiable distinction between those who are allowed to vote and those who are not. In the absence of very strong evidence of the logistical and cost implications in extending the right to vote, and clearly articulated policy considerations about which categories of South African citizens who happen to live abroad should be disenfranchised, the Constitutional Court will have some difficulty with the legislation as it stands.”

So if there is no “logical and justifiable distinction”, that means the judgement passed down is ambiguous, undefined. You cannot fight or identify the person as friend or foe if you cannot see him in the mist. You stagger about in the fog making the same query over and over until you wearily give up.

This unfortunate state of affairs strikes all us South Africans in Shanghai, and people from other countries, as deliberate and well-timed. A group of us from a variety of different countries were having lunch at the Big Bamboo pub in downtown Shanghai yesterday. The issue of disenfranchised South Africans living abroad came up.

Now this crowd of ex-pats who love Big Bamboo include some extremely well-informed people, CEO’s, attorneys, people who run large import-export concerns and factories. Before I could even voice my thoughts, they were, almost in chorus, telling me it was obviously a strategy to prevent South Africans overseas from voting.

Because, quite simply, very few of us are likely to vote for the ruling party.

For those who have left SA permanently, except for regular holidays to see family in South Africa, the current ruling party’s leadership and policies are part of the complex reasoning for leaving forever.

Friends of mine in SA told me the topic was brought up on a 702 talk show recently and the same conclusion was reached among many listeners.

To use the words of other South Africans I have listened to and read, why not just take away our citizenship as well?

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