Over 78,000 South Africans abroad could vote next week, but there are still many challenges facing expat voters

Hayley Reichert founder of Operation Watershed. Picture: Supplied

Hayley Reichert founder of Operation Watershed. Picture: Supplied

Published May 10, 2024


With just one week to go until South Africans abroad cast their votes in the 2024 general elections, some expats who want to vote have been presented with many challenges, highlighting the complexities of ensuring electoral participation beyond national borders.

One of the four challenges voting expats face is the logistical hurdles in registering and casting their ballots abroad. The South African government has made an effort to facilitate voting overseas through diplomatic missions and online registration platforms, but issues such as access to voting stations can impede expatriates’ ability to partake in the elections.

Additionally, bureaucratic requirements and the need for valid identification documents can pose challenges for expatriates living in countries with stringent residency or citizenship requirements.

The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) says by law, South Africans abroad can only vote in South Africa's national elections, “they cannot vote in the provincial elections, regional elections for National Assembly, or municipal elections”.

This means expats can only vote for political parties, they cannot vote for the independent candidates who will contest the general elections.

According to Hayley Reichert, the founder of Operation Watershed, a voter advocacy group abroad, long distances coupled with limited access to polling stations and bureaucratic processes can hinders their ability to participate in the electoral process.

Reichert said that thirteen foreign missions have closed in the last few years and have limited access to essential consular services and voting.

“To ensure that we uphold our constitution and that every citizen has an opportunity to cast a ballot, we need alternative options like online voting and more voting stations in strategic locations where we know a great number of South Africans reside,’’ said Reichert.

In addition, the challenge of special votes has been reflected in low registration, overseas voting is deemed a special vote and therefore one can only vote at a foreign mission on the allocated date.

There are 78,092 registered voters abroad out of 1 million voters registered to participate in the 2024 national elections on May 17 and 18.

Moreover, Reichert said access to documentation has been a serious issue because no one uses an Identification Document (ID) or smartcard outside of South Africa, and obtaining an ID can take up to three months up to eighteen months depending on the foreign mission.

“Due to current legislation and given that the Constitutional Court is yet to approve the Supreme Court of Appeal on the loss of citizenship matter, we are unable to use a passport as means of proof of identity to cast our votes abroad as a South African passport is a travel document and not proof of identity,’’ Reichert said.

Furthermore, the disenfranchisement of the new ballot system exacerbates the issue, as they are only issued with the national ballot.

Reichert said naturally they do not cast provincial ballots because they do not reside in any of the nine provinces, however, because of the way the system has been set up, voters in the country will now be able to cast ballots for independent candidates with the introduction of the second ballot paper.

“We are disenfranchised from voting for independent candidates as we are not issued with this ballot paper. We are therefore only able to vote for parties participating at the national level which is incongruent with our rights as citizens of South Africa,’’ she said.

Reichert said it was evident from the last two national elections a resounding 61% of eligible voters abroad took part in the elections.

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