Diaspora voting:Lessons from South Africa’s diaspora

The recent General Election in South Africa has highlighted diaspora voting as the newest frontier of Africa’s burgeoning democracy.

Some 26,000 South African citizens living or working overseas were part of a total of 25.3 million registered voters — one of the highest ever in the country, representing 80.5 per cent of the 31.4 million people eligible to vote in the country — who turned out to vote on May 7, 2014.

South Africans went to the polls, the fifth democratic election since the end of apartheid, to elect a new 400-member National Assembly and nine new provincial legislatures.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) of President Jacob Zuma emerged as the outright winner garnering 62 per cent of the total votes cast.

Following closely was the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance of Helen Zille, which scored 22 per cent of the total vote, while the newly launched Economic Freedom Fighters of the maverick youth leader Julius Malema managed six per cent in its first electoral attempt.

Although the ANC vote went down from 66 per cent in the 2009 polls and the opposition increased its support from 17 per cent, the election confirmed South Africa as a “one-dominant party” state, one of the few in Africa where the party of national liberation still holds sway.

With this triumph, the ANC’s next hurdle is to broker a smooth post-Zuma transition.

A problematic vote

Although some 26,000 South Africans living abroad were able to cast their votes at more than 116 missions across the world, in its aftermath the Diaspora vote has revealed the new challenge of ensuring the “right to vote” in a highly dynamic globalised world where movement of populations is the norm.

Given the hue and cry that has attended the question of the rights of citizens living abroad to vote, this marks a significant milestone in Africa’s democracy. The process was deceptively simple.

Between January 9 and February 7, South Africans abroad registered as voters at any of the country’s embassies, high commissions or consulates.

Those voters unable to register during business hours had a chance to do so on the weekends of January 18–19 and January 25–26. By March 12, Diaspora voters wishing to vote notified the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of their intentions.

Thus, over 26,000 voters were registered to vote overseas by the time of the election.

At 9,863 registered voters, the city of London recorded the highest number of South Africa’s Diaspora voters, while Guinea Bissau, with one applicant, was the lowest.

The South African ballot has raised two salient issues relating to the future of diaspora voting in Africa; the right to vote and the right of representation for the diaspora in national legislatures and decision making.


Election posters with the faces of Jacob Zuma(in yellow), African National Congress(ANC) and South African President, and Helen Zille(in blue), opposition Democratic Alliance(DA), smiling out in Gugulethu on May 02, 2014. AFP / RODGER BOSCH

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