South Africans working in the UAE are celebrating because they may be able to vote in their national elections for the first time in 15 years. A general election is scheduled for April but South Africans working overseas have been ineligible to vote in any poll since the landmark 1994 election that saw Nelson Mandela become president. However, this month the country's High Court ruled that a South African teacher living in Britain did have the right to vote.
The case will now go forward to South Africa's Constitutional Court early next month. The court case was brought by Willem Richter, who was spending three years in Britain before aiming to return home this year after the election. When he found he could not vote, he contacted a South African group that used his case to challenge the law. His challenge was cheered by Marion Erskine, 32, a teacher from Johannesburg who lives in Abu Dhabi.
He welcomed the chance to shape the country he calls home, even though he has been working abroad for the past six years. "Democracy doesn't stop at the airport," he said. "As a citizen of South Africa, I have the right to vote for a party who has my mother's best interest at heart as a pensioner, a good education for my nephew who has extreme potential and a safer environment for all those who I love.
"We are often told that we've abandoned our country, but in a way my country abandoned me. "I had so much to give in the education system, but was never appreciated for my effort. "I might not live there, but the economy and crime has a direct impact on my life here as well." There are concerns in South Africa that if the diaspora - estimated at between 500,000 and 2 million, predominantly white professionals - regains the right to vote, most will oppose the ruling African National Congress.
Their votes will not make a difference to the ANC's overall majority but could deprive it of the two-thirds majority in parliament that enables it to change the constitution. A group on the social networking site Facebook called South African Citizens Abroad - Your Right To Vote! has attracted nearly 3,500 members. Three of the group's initiators, Shaun Croucamp, Catherine Russell and Adrian Steyn, are based in the UAE.
The group notes that prison inmates in South Africa retain the right to vote although its law-abiding citizens living overseas do not. "That right is still theirs even though they took innocent human lives, raped and abused defenceless children and stole what wasn't theirs," it said. "Ironic, as the extremely high crime rate is possibly the main reason why so many South African citizens now live abroad in much safer counties."
South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission also will face huge logistical, time and budget difficulties if expatriates do regain the ability to vote. The Constitutional Court will hear the case just six weeks before the election is due. firstname.lastname@example.org