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Ex-president F W de Klerk joins expat voting rights court battle

By Adriana Stuijt     Feb 19, 2009 in Politics
Ex South African president and Nobel Peace laureate Frederick F de Klerk's office has issued a strong statement to Digital Journal in which he comes out in support of the legal battle for the voting rights of 2-million expats working abroad.
Four South African political parties have teamed up together with 13 expat South Africans in an urgent application to the Constitutional Court, in a case on March 4 2009 which will have repercussions for the country's sizeable expatriate community. More than 80% of the South Africans working abroad are white English- and Afrikaans speakers. If they are granted voting facilities at foreign legations abroad, as the law suit demands, this could also have a powerful impact on the forthcoming national election outcome on April 22.
It is estimated that some 600,000 South African expats live in the United Kingdom alone. Most work as doctors, educators and nursing personnel - often they are recruited actively by UK authorities because especially white South Africans often remain jobless in their own country because of the race-based employment laws. If the Constitutional Court rules on March 4 that the expatsmust be granted voting facilities, the local embassy is expected to have to field a large run of voters wanting to register.
Application forms for new voter registration can already be downloaded from the website of one of the four parties involved in the law suit, the Freedom Front Plus. see
The country's current co-ruling troika -- comprised of the South African Communist Party, the Cosatu trade union movement and the African National Congress party -- recently have split straight down the middle after the election of ANC-MP Jacob Zuma as president of the ANC. A breakaway faction, COPE, was formed by supporters of ex-president Thabo Mbeki, who together with his entire cabinet, was unceremoniously voted out as president of the country by the Zuma faction. At the moment, the country has a caretaker government, with a caretaker president, and a great many important political decisions are being put on hold until after the election on April 22.
These two once so cohesive factions also now are at each others throats, with a great many incidents of political assassinations and attempted assassinations reported in still growing incidents of violence in which supporters battle each other across both sides of the political divide.
Expatriate vote could make a strong impact
The growing lack of leadership is giving opposition parties - especially the largest opposition party Inkatha Freedom Party and the Democratic Alliance -- a chance to step into this chaotic situation. The large expatriate community, which has not been allowed to vote in the past two elections, could thus make a powerful difference to the outcome in the April election. There is deep discontent among especially black voters about the poor, often fraudulent leadership of the ANC-government, and riots in townships against their poor 'service delivery' are frequent.
Today, executive director Dave Steward of the Centre for Constitutional Rights -- a unit of the FW de Klerk Foundation - told Digital Journal that Pres. de Klerk had already objected a month ago in a letter to the chair of the electoral commission Brigalia Bam to the 'status of second-class citizens' which she had delegated all the expat South Africans to.
De Klerk had pointed out in his letter to Bam that "the voting rights of all South Africans are not only firmly embedded in the country's constitution, but also reconfirmed by 1999 judgments in the Constitutional Court ordering the government to provide voting facilities to its hundreds of thousands of prisoners. (Case: (August and Others vs the Independent Electoral Commission) See our previous story here
Steward said it is De Klerk's firm opinion that all South African citizens living abroad have a right to vote - and that this right takes precedence over any administrative considerations.
The South African government claims that the administration of all these expats at foreign embassies would be too cumbersome, time-consuming and above-all, expensive and that they didn't have enough staff to cope with it. For this reason alone, the last time South African expats were allowed to vote in the country's national elections at foreign legations was in 1994, during the peaceful transition of power from the previous National Party government. After 1994''s election, the country's embassies and consulates only registered special votes for bureaucrats and their families stationed abroad, and closed its doors to all the other citizens working abroad, who wanted to vote in their elections from abroad. Temporary travellers could still apply for special votes, a cumbersome procedure.
He said De Klerk -- the country's last Afrikaner president who handed over the reigns of the country to ex-President Nelson Mandela in a peaceful transferral of power -- wrote to Brigalia Bam, chairwoman of the Independent Electoral Commission, asking her about this unequal voting procedure.
Electoral commission 'declined to take action'
Steward said "De Klerk had asked her (Bam) what steps she would be taking to interpret the Electoral Act “in a way which enhances enfranchisement” in the case of South African citizens living abroad and how she planned to carry out “the positive responsibilities” identified by the Constitutional Court, to facilitate their right to register and to vote.
In her reply, the Chairwoman of the IEC politely 'declined to take the necessary action', Steward pointed out.
De Klerk welcomes Pretoria High Court ruling
"The CFCR accordingly welcomes the recent (Pretoria) High Court judgement that found in the case of Richter v .the Minister of Home Affairs and Others that all South Africans living overseas do, indeed, have the right to vote.
The case will be given final consideration by the Constitutional Court on 4 March 2009.
"The Centre hopes that the Constitutional Court will confirm the judgement of the High Court and that it will also order remedial steps to ensure that as many South Africans living overseas as possible will also be able to cast their ballots in the coming election.
"This would be in keeping with the foundational principles of the Constitution, which require universal adult franchise, a national common voters roll and regular elections.
"Section 3(2)(a) states that “all citizens are equally entitled to rights, privileges and benefits of citizenship” which clearly includes the right in Section 19 “to free, fair and regular elections, and every adult citizen has the right to vote in elections”.
The Centre 's statement points out that there is 'no possibility of relegating citizens who happen to live abroad to some kind of second class, disenfranchised, status - since equality is another foundational principle, entrenched in Section 9 of the Constitution which proclaims inter alia that ‘equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms’ - undoubtedly including the fundamental right to vote.
Working overseas not a sign of disloyalty
"In a rapidly globalizing world, prolonged residence overseas is not viewed as a sign of disloyalty, but as a reflection of growing international economic integration. Many countries recognize the right of citizens living abroad to vote in national elections.
"In some cases (including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Germany) the right expires after a specified period - ranging between 3 and 25 years.
"In other countries, citizens overseas retain their right to vote in perpetuity (including the Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Indonesia, Italy, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Ukraine, and the United States)," Steward concluded his statement to Digital Journal."
More about Klerk, Centre for constitutional, Klerk foundation, Expats voting rights
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