Expat voters left high and dry

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Copy of ca p4 Expat Voting DONE AP South Africans gather to vote at the South African High Commission at Trafalgar Square in central London. Picture: Lefteris Pitarakis

Boston - Hundreds of thousands of South Africans living abroad have been disenfranchised by a lack of voting stations in foreign countries, and no provision for postal ballots or electronic voting.

This is in contrast to 1994’s first democratic elections where South African embassies and consulates enabled voting and South Africans had the option of postal ballots.

In the US, ambassador Ebrahim Rasool claimed there were only 70 000 South Africans and dual nationals (those with citizenship of the US and South Africa), but this is widely considered to be an underestimate of the real number of South Africans living there.

The small state of Massachusetts alone is believed to have about 20 000 South Africans residents.

It is hard to go anywhere in this state and not meet a South African or those who do not recognise a South African accent because they have friends here. While a few South Africans travelled from here to New York to vote, most could not afford the air fare (about R2 000), trainfare (about R3 000) or eight-hour round trip by car.

 

Copy of ca p4 Expats Voting 2 DONE South African nationals wait to be registered with election officials to cast their vote at South Africa High Commission at Trafalgar Square in central London. Picture: Lefteris Pitarakis AP

Large South African populations in California and Florida – where many live because the sunny conditions are similar to South Africa’s – had no opportunity to vote unless they were prepared to travel 1 700km to Washington, DC.

Most of these trips would also need overnight stays and hotel costs. Juliett Allan in Pennsylvania said she had been prepared to travel the two hours to Washington, DC, to vote, but “I keep calling the embassy and no one answers”.

In Australia, there was a single voting station in Canberra, where few South Africans live, and nowhere to vote in Perth and Sydney, which have large South African populations.

Keryn Clark said: “I’d have to travel 1 600km to vote, and I can’t afford the costs or the time off work.”

Theresa Varty in Vancouver, Canada, said she and her husband and friends could not vote because there was just one voting station in all of Canada, and that in the city with the lowest South African population, Ottawa, almost 5 000km from Vancouver, which has the largest population of South African expatriates.

In the UK, only those able to get to London could vote. Greg Marshbank, who now lives in Doncaster near London, said he was one of more than 9 000 South Africans who voted.

“But London is six hours by train from Scotland, three hours from Yorkshire, and two hours from most major centres. And then you have to go through the chaos of striking workers at train stations and the busy London traffic.

“For a large number of potential voters it can take up to a day to travel to vote and back, maybe an overnight stay in some cases. But I heard the boerewors rolls and Creme Soda flowed until the cops took the braai away.

“Some Saffas played the anthem on bagpipes, so those who could get there had fun. On the downside, it may well be a ploy by the ruling party who suspect that many voters abroad are not on their side.”

As for this writer, I too registered to vote and found out, only a few weeks before the election, that unless I could afford to take time off work and pay the costs of travelling to New York, I would not be able to vote. And so this became the first election since democracy in which I have not voted. I refused to vote during apartheid.

* Charlene Smith is a South African journalist and author who lives and works in Massachusetts.

Independent Foreign Service

* This story has been edited to remove incorrect information.



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