South Africans Living Abroad Gain Voting Right

12 March 2009

The South African Constitution Court has ruled citizens who are registered voters and reside abroad are entitled to vote. The decision overturns sections of the country's electoral law.

In a unanimous decision the Constitutional Court, the country's highest on constitutional matters, has restored to many South Africans living abroad the right to vote in the upcoming election for the houses of parliament. The judgment was written by Justice Kate O'Regan.

"On this basis I hold that section 33.1.e of the electoral act, and the related provisions of the regulations, constitute an unjustifiable limitation of section 19 of the constitution, which entrenches the right to vote," O'Regan said.  

Justice Sandile Ngcobo who delivered the court's decision in a related case explained the effect of the court's rulings.

"The effect of the order that I am about to make, is that South African citizens who are abroad and who registered as voters, will be allowed to vote," Ngcobo said. "Those who are not registered, will not."

In South Africa registration as a voter is permanent and therefore any voter who has registered to vote after 1994, is now eligible to vote.  

The cases before the constitutional court related to South Africans who reside temporarily and permanently abroad.  

The court ruled only in the applications of individuals who are already registered voters because one of those cases had already been heard in a lower court. That judge made a similar ruling, but referred the case to the constitutional court because his ruling related to a section in the constitution.  

The constitutional court judges decided against ruling on applications relating to unregistered voters, which have not yet been heard in a lower court. Those applicants, and applicants who sought relief to vote in provincial elections, will first have to take their cases to a lower court. Justice Ngcobo said there appeared to be no reason why the applicants had left it so late to seek relief from the courts.  

The court ruled that registered voters living aboard must apply to the Independent Electoral Commission by March 27 for a special ballot. Chief Electoral Officer Pansy Tlakula told South Africa's eNews Channel her commission will be ready for voters abroad to cast their ballots on April 22.

"So all in all we are relieved that this is over, there is certainty on the matter and we will be able to start preparing for overseas votes," Tlakula said.

It is unclear how many voters will benefit from the court's decision.