Voter registration weekend for SA expats excludes Israel, Sudan and Ukraine – Sy Mamabolo

For the first time since 1994, South Africans living and working abroad can now register online to vote in this year’s provincial and national elections. This weekend, on 26, 27 and 28 January, they will also have the opportunity to register in person at diplomatic missions. However, Chief Electoral Officer Sy Mamabolo said that in-person registration will not be available for South Africans in Israel, Ukraine and Israel as the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, which are their overseas partners, has indicated that these three diplomatic missions are not operational. In an interview with BizNews, Mamabolo said that he would however encourage voters in those countries to register online in the event of any changes to the security situation. He said Statistics South Africa has estimated that approximately 2 million South Africans are living abroad, but in the 2019 elections only 19,000 votes were cast ‘out of country.’ He expressed the hope that there are going to be many expats taking part in the coming elections as it is now much easier to register. Overseas voters would still have to go to diplomatic missions to vote on the day and the IEC indicated that it would not be able to increase the number of voting stations, as requested by the Democratic Alliance, without legislative amendment. Mamabolo said he was encouraged by the trend of increased registration among young people, noting that 78% of new registrations during the registration weekend in November were from the youth. Despite some uncertainties, Mamabolo said the IEC was ready for the election which could for the first time have a two-page ballot. He also revealed that Elon Musk’s Twitter or X has “been a bit difficult” and has not signed a cooperation agreement that the IEC negotiated with other tech giants to combat misinformation. – Linda van Tilburg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Introduction
  • 00:48 – What do people abroad need in order to register?
  • 01:44 – People who will not be able to vote in person
  • 02:42 – Voting online
  • 03:15 – How many expats are there?
    04:07 – Hoping for more overseas voters
  • 04:39 – Extra voting stations abroad
  • 05:30 – Encouraging young people to vote
  • 07:00 – Social media and propaganda 
  • 08:55 – Where is misinformation reported?
    09:25 – Does this include X (twitter)?
  • 10:04 – How is the IEC handling the election
  • 11:24 – Could Zuma be a presidential candidate
  • 12:50 – Court cases that could cause delays
  • 13:27 – When the date is announced will the IEC be ready?
  • 14:58 – Recap of what South Africans abroad need to register
  • 15:28 – Hostile relationship between government and voters abroad
  • 16:06 – Conclusion

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Excerpts from the interview


DIRCO indicates Israel, Sudan and Ukraine diplomatic missions are not operational

This is a very important weekend for South African citizens who are living outside of the country. They have an opportunity to register to be placed on the voters’ roll which will allow them to vote on election day when the election is eventually proclaimed. To register, they need a South African identity document as well as a passport. Once they are registered, when election time comes, they can exercise their right to vote, which is conferred to them by our constitution, Section 19, to be precise.

We are delivering this project in partnership with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, DIRCO, who have now indicated to us that in three countries the missions are not operational. That is in Israel, Tel Aviv, Sudan and Ukraine. The reasons that they provided is the fact there are currently security situations that make it impossible for them to operate in those missions. We are asking people in those countries to register online because it may well be that by the time elections come, the conflict situations are resolved and we are able to open and offer them the electoral service.

Voting online is not available, but it is something that we are looking into for the future because we have to take advantage of advances in technological innovations, even as an electoral commission.

An estimated 2 million South Africans living abroad, no extra voting station intended 

Statistics South Africa indicates that there are approximately 2 million South Africans living outside of the country. For those South Africans, we are offering the service online and we are offering the registration service physically at the missions. We want to get the message out that South Africans should really come and take advantage of the opportunity available to them. We’ll see after the weekend how many people would heed this message.

In 2019, 19,000 people voted abroad. We’re hoping it’s going to be much more on this occasion precisely because the registration service has been made a lot easier than was the case in 2019.

Despite the pressure from the DA to open additional voting stations abroad for the elections, it won’t be possible without a legislative amendment because the law, which is the electoral section 33 in particular, limits the voting facilities to diplomatic missions. Now, the IEC has no discretion to go outside the letter of the law. Were the law to be changed, by all means, the IEC will pull all stops to make it happen but we are not able to outside of the injunction of the law.

Positive trend of young people registering for the elections 

We engage with young people in various ways. We are in schools where we promote democracy week and spend time engaging with young people, registering them, ensuring they have IDs. We are also active in colleges and universities of technology as well as traditional universities engaging with young people on an annual basis. But we are also on social media because that’s really the platform that young people use in the course of their daily lives. So, we are all over social media, engaging young people, advertising, and so on.

In the last registration weekend we had in November, 78% of new registrations were young people. It is our hope that that trend continues over this weekend for young people who are outside of the Republic, but also it continues for the second registration weekend, which is scheduled for the third and fourth of February.

Cooperation with social media platforms to combat misinformation, report cases on Real411

Whatever process or mechanism you put in place must be human rights based. In other words, it must respect the freedom of expression of citizens. We’ve linked up with social media platforms, Meta, Facebook, TikTok and so on. We’ve signed a cooperation framework. That cooperation framework works on the basis of reports that are made relating to instances of disinformation or misinformation. Those will be looked at within 45 minutes by a three member panel of experts who will then say in our view, this is purely robust electioneering or whether this is disinformation and so on. On the basis of the recommendation from the panel, they may make a recommendation for a take down or for a warning to be issued and so on. We will then on that basis engage with the platform. So that’s the infrastructure that we’ve created to deal with disinformation, which if not dealt with could result in the electoral process being brought into disrepute.

Elon Musk’s X not cooperating with the IEC to stop misinformation 

X has been a bit difficult. I think we must say they’ve not come to the party, they’ve not signed the cooperation framework, but we have not stopped reaching out to them because we do think that they are an important player and they need to be brought into the framework.

IEC will be ready for the elections despite some uncertainties 

There are a number of uncertainties at the moment, but we are preparing on the basis of the worst possible scenario. For instance, we think that if we have participants going beyond 48 on any ballot configuration, then we will probably use a dual column ballot. We’ve not used that before, but if the number of contestants on any ballot configuration go beyond 96, we may have to use a two-page ballot. Again, we’ve never had to use that. But we’ve prepared the printing capacity, working together with the secure printing industry in the country to ensure that should those permutations materialise then we have the capacity to do it within the limited timeframes that we do.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IC) has been preparing for this election for about 18 months and will be ready for an election at the earliest constitutional possibility. We will be ready for any eventuality in respect of when the election is called for. We will not ask the government to postpone it. The Constitutional Court has already ruled that you can’t postpone an election beyond what is permissible in terms of the constitution. So we’re not entertaining that thought. Whenever the election is called for, we will be in a position to deliver that election.

Invitation to all South Africans Abroad to register for the elections

It’s your democracy, own it, and you own it by participating in the election and shaping the future direction of the country. We’re inviting all South Africans abroad to register. They have the same rights as we do because they are all conferred in terms of the constitution. You can register online if you have access to be able to vote or come to the mission over the two days, either Saturday or Saturday and Sunday.

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