Expats squandered the right to vote

2009-05-02 00:00

There must be a couple of million South Africans living abroad. After all, the Institute of Race Relations estimates that almost 900 000 whites left in the past 10 years. And to anyone living in London or Sydney or Auckland, Saffers — as they have come to be known — seem to be everywhere.

The Saffers remain a potentially potent political force in South Africa. Unlike the European migrants to the United States over the centuries, who were eager to put their blighted pasts behind them and be absorbed into the melting pot, Saffers retain an intense interest, sometimes verging on the unhealthily obsessive, in their land of birth.

That passion can be gauged by their posting to online websites that deal with everyday South African politics, their support for South African sporting teams abroad, and the success of businesses catering for them, whether it be a newspaper like London’s SA Times, or shops selling Mrs Balls chutney and Ouma rusks.

A large majority of emigrants also happen to be the country’s best and brightest, who felt pushed to leave and who struggle to integrate into their new countries. Over 90% of recent emigrants cite levels of violent crime as the major reason for their leaving, a perception shared across the races as more well-qualified black Africans, Indians and coloureds head overseas.

All of which makes inexplicable the failure of South Africans abroad to seize the opportunity offered by a recent Constitutional Court ruling to vote in last week’s general election. Fewer than 10 000 made the effort to do so and at one embassy polling station not a single person turned up.

Whether this was indifference or just laziness, they have squandered a hard-won right. Expatriates were allowed to vote in the first democratic elections in 1994 and again in 1999, but by 2004 this right was severely restricted by an African National Congress government that equated emigration with white betrayal and racism.

This is a view that remains prevalent in the ANC, despite a softening of the official line. Instead of damning expatriates as racist whingers, the government claims to seek to encourage the return of skills or, alternatively, to harness the patriotic feelings of the diaspora to benefit the country.

But the ruling party’s prejudice is better conveyed by Jessie Duarte, ANC election spokesperson, who greeted the announcement that most of the overseas vote had gone to the Democratic Alliance with the jibe that it showed the “right-wing” credentials of those who had abandoned South Africa.

Aside from the tired iteration of the racist mantra, it seems she didn’t look carefully at the figures. Almost 20% of the foreign vote went to traditionally “black” political parties, including the ANC.

Compare her off-the-cuff heartfelt opinion with the official view as put out by Themba Maseko, senior government spokesperson, who said the enthusiasm with which people voted abroad “heartened government and boded well for building a brain bank of South Africans abroad to help improve the country’s image, and to bring back knowledge and skills”.

The challenge for opposition parties over the next five years is to exploit the opportunity that the Constitutional Court has opened up. One cannot help but have sympathy for the Freedom Front Plus, which first instituted the legal action that won expats the right to vote, but was rewarded with a meagre 270 overseas votes.

American and British citizens abroad vote in significant numbers, but the international perspective that they bring can be more important than actual numbers. Last year, American expatriates played a crucial part in conveying to their hometown relatives the potential costs of having another maverick, interventionist Republican administration. South Africans abroad can play a similar role, if they could just be galvanised to get off their backsides.

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