DA likely to be prime beneficiary of votes far from home

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South Africans living abroad will be able to register to vote in this year’s general elections for the first time – nationally, not provincially. Aside from logistical issues, there’s a good reason why the ANC would have been opposed to allowing expats a provincial vote: in the 2009 elections, when only already registered South Africans were allowed to vote, the DA won the vast majority of votes cast overseas. It’s doubtful that things will look any different this time around. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Last year the Electoral Amendment Bill was passed, giving South Africans living abroad the right for the first time to register to vote in the 2014 elections. The situation from the passing of the 1998 Electoral Act onwards granted the right to vote overseas only to South African government officials, sports teams who happened to be competing internationally, and South Africans on business or holiday trips. This changed before the 2009 elections after being challenged by the Freedom Front Plus in court, with the result that South Africans who were already registered to vote back at home were allowed to cast their ballot in a foreign country in that year.

The 2009 turnout, however, was insignificant. London saw the highest number of South Africans queue to make their mark at the High Commission, with 7,472 votes cast. Australia and Dubai followed, with 1, 235 votes and 900 votes cast respectively, and a few hundred more in New Zealand, the Netherlands and Ireland. Isolated votes were cast in places as far afield as Trinidad and Tobago. A total of 9,857 votes were counted.

The DA wiped the floor with the competition, taking home 7,581 votes. COPE followed, with a meagre 918 votes, while the best the ANC could do was to rake in 670.

Of course, this outcome isn’t remotely surprising if you take into account the stereotype of the disenchanted white émigré, as offensively reductive as that might be. It’s unclear just how many South Africans there are living overseas at the moment, but the popular conception is that the majority are white. Two years ago Politicsweb tried to do the maths. On the basis of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data, the website estimated that as of 2010, there were around 580,000 people born in South Africa living in 18 countries including the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US. The lion’s share were in the UK (227,000), followed by Australia (155,690).

We shouldn’t put too much faith in those figures, because they’re likely to be unreliable. We also don’t know what percentage of those South African-borns are eligible to vote in terms of age. Still, if you consider that 500,000 votes is the amount won in the 2009 elections by the Independent Democrats, the UDM and the FF Plus combined, it’s clear that the overseas vote is potentially worth something.

The DA definitely knows this. The DA Abroad is a slick, well-run operation headed up by one Nigel Bruce, former Financial Mail and Business Dayeditor (and former DA MP). According to their website, the DA Abroad has branches on five continents, although the most active appears to be in London.

DA Abroad Media Liaison Francine Higham, based in London, told the Daily Maverick on Thursday that the organisation currently has two campaigns running to encourage South Africans overseas to register to vote. One is non-partisan – the ‘Vote Home’ campaign – and the other is a global campaign which “has a stronger focus on DA messaging and which will be run via our official regional networks in the UK and across Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the USA & Canada,” says Higham.

“In 2009 over 85% of South Africans abroad voted for the DA, but due to legislation allowing South Africans to vote abroad being passed very late ahead of the elections, voter turnout was very poor,” Higham explained. “This time around, we're doing our utmost to ensure that all those who want to vote abroad can do so, and are expecting a much larger voter turnout which would increase the number of votes for the DA considerably.”

DA bigwigs have paid a number of trips to London over the past year to network with potential supporters. Helen Zille was there twice in 2012, in June and November, and parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko made her way over in August last year to launch a London chapter of Blue, the DA’s social network.

Agang’s Mamphela Ramphele is clearly alive to the potential of overseas voters too (and possibly their chequebooks, given that the party is said to be in financial trouble already). Ramphele will be in London to give two public talks on January 20th: one to the Business Council for Africa and another to the South African Chamber of Commerce.

The ANC London branch, which has launched a Facebook campaign of its own to draw South Africans overseas to vote, failed to respond to repeated requests to comment. DM

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Photo: The ANC's Jacob Zuma and DA's Helen Zille (Reuters photos)