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Condemned to obscurity: The state of our population register and the right to vote

By Liesl Muller

I recently attended an election-observer training session in preparation for next month’s elections. I was inspired by the chance to play my part in the democratic process shaping the future of our country.

Voting is an opportunity many South Africans did not have in the years before democracy and which South Africans paid a high price to obtain. It’s distressing that some South Africans — after 20 years of democracy — still do not have access to the right to vote and participate in democracy due to avoidable administrative barriers.

The Southern African Development Community’s electoral principles, as well as our own Constitution, promote and ensure the full participation of all citizens in elections and the right to vote. But the sheer multitude of citizens who approach Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) for help in obtaining documents proving their citizenship suggests that not everyone in South Africa enjoys the same hard-earned rights to equal citizenship.

In order to vote, you have to be a citizen with a green barcoded identity document. An ID is received after a person’s birth is registered and entered into the national population register on application at a local home affairs office.

LHR frequently helps citizens who have been unable to register births or unblock an ID that has been arbitrarily “under investigation” for years without resolution. Very often, the inability to apply for a birth certificate or ID comes down to officials’ lack of knowledge and training on citizenship laws in South Africa.

Citizens are turned away based on a misinformed understanding of citizenship and birth-registration laws. The many conversations with home affairs officials have revealed that some staff have little grasp on the matter. Attempting to convince them of citizens’ constitutional rights is often futile. They are often armed with an outdated understanding of the requirements.

The civic-registration department within home affairs is tasked primarily with the responsibility to identify citizens. In order to fulfil this responsibility an in-depth knowledge of the South African Citizenship Act is necessary. Citizenship in South Africa is no longer based on race or culture, but solely on the provisions of this Act.

Although Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor recently stated that her officials were receiving training LHR has yet to see an improvement in the day-to-day battle for citizenship rights. This is particularly distressing in light of the upcoming elections.

Citizenship is often described as the right to have rights or the gateway to the achievement of rights. This includes the right to vote. Without a valid ID or birth certificate it is impossible to function in our identity-driven society and it is therefore imperative that the custodians of this very fundamental right are qualified to do the job.

How does this affect the way we see this year’s elections?

As much as I would like to be serious about ensuring free and fair elections for those who will vote, I cannot ignore the fact that too many citizens will not have the choice to vote. Home affairs’ failure to adhere to our citizenship laws will prevent a significant group of citizens from voting. Universal adult suffrage is a founding value of our democracy, without which the possibility of a democratic state is questionable.

We live in a country that inherited a defective population register from the apartheid years. It’s important home affairs attempts to correct this situation in a responsible manner that includes, at least, proper training of officials — from the inspectorate to the front desk official. This is critical.

Liesl Muller is an attorney with the LHR’s Statelessness Project in Johannesburg, which falls within the mandate of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme.


  • Lawyers for Human Rights

    Lawyers for Human Rights is an independent human rights organisation with a 37-year track record of human rights activism and public interest litigation in South Africa. LHR uses the law as a positive instrument for change and to deepen the democratisation of South African society. To this end, it provides free legal services to vulnerable, marginalised and indigent individuals and communities, both non-national and South African, who are victims of unlawful infringements of their constitutional rights. LHR's work is instrumental through its key programmes including the Land and Housing Unit, the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme, the Environmental Rights Project, Strategic Litigation Unit and Security of Farm Workers Project.