Canadians who live abroad will now be able to vote — a right SA citizens have had for a decade, but which Zimbabweans can only dream of. 

THANKS to a 2009 decision of the constitutional court, SA’s upcoming national elections mark the 10th year that South Africans, living and working outside the country’s borders, may cast their vote while abroad.

Despite complaints about how the system works and that there are too few voting stations, the right has at least been established, whereas in countries like Zimbabwe it is still far off.

For Canada, also poised for an election later this year, it will be a new thrill. The supreme court there has just decided that restricting which citizens may vote abroad is unconstitutional. With a general election scheduled in the next nine months, all Canadians away at polling time and who have completed the necessary administrative work will now be able to vote from abroad.

The two people at the centre of the case had been studying in the US and now continue to work there. They tried to vote in Canada’s 2011 national elections but the law said that citizens could vote outside the country only if they had been away for less than five years.

In other words, as the supreme court would later put it, anyone away for more than five years was automatically disenfranchised.

Members of the Canadian armed forces posted away were exempt from this criterion – but everyone else abroad longer than five years could not vote again until they returned and took up residence in Canada again.

During argument the government had no real justification for the restriction, nor evidence of any harm that it was meant to address. On the other hand, the rule affected many people: according to evidence, well over one million Canadians were prevented from voting in 2009 because of the five-year law.

In the past, citizens were generally unable to travel much, said the supreme court, and they tended to spend their whole lives in one community. Now though, people could move and yet remain connected in a way that was unprecedented. The judges also pointed to evidence that many Canadians living outside the country kept strong economic ties by way of taxes for example.

“The right to vote is no longer tied to ownership of property and bestowed only on select members of society. And citizenship, not residence, defines our political community and underpins the right to vote,” they said.

It is not often that Canada lags behind on issues of extending or protecting democracy via the courts but on this question, SA was a full decade ahead.

Initially the law here said that, apart from government employees working outside the country and members of their households, you could also vote abroad if you were “temporarily absent” from SA due to a holiday, a business trip, studying or an international sports event.

But there are many other categories of South Africans away from home during elections. One of those in whose name the 2009 case was brought was Willem Richter, a teacher in the UK, and neither a government employee, nor on holiday or a business trip.

The government argued that anyone out of the country could cast their vote abroad because the restrictions could be interpreted widely, but the court said this was not so. Richter was “certainly not on holiday” and would have been disqualified. Among the others whose plight was raised before the court at the same time was Kwame Moloko, ironically enough working at the time as a financial adviser for an international accounting firm in Canada.

Like their Canadian counterparts years later, the SA judges spoke of the global economy with its opportunities for study and work in other countries. Citizens who took the trouble to vote while away expressed their continued commitment to SA as well as their “civic-mindedness”, they concluded.

  • Financial Mail, 31 January 2019