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Should foreigners vote?

I recently dealt with at least three queries about the voting rights of permanent residents in South Africa, and specifically the change in their status and recognition.

The first time I had to deal with this concern was in the run up to the 2011 local government elections when a Centurion resident told me his voting rights as a Dutch citizen permanently residing in South Africa changed in the mid-1990s and he’d like an explanation.

While there were 1.6 million self-declared non-citizens in South Africa during the 2011 Census — 850 000 in Gauteng alone — not all of these are here as permanent residents. It is interesting to note, that in 2003 a total of 10 578 persons were granted permanent residence in the country, of which only approximately 10% were economically active.

The general feeling is that they, as officially recognised and legal permanent residents, have a vested interest in the affairs and government of their ward and municipality, and some also claim that this extends to the provincial and national level too.

The argument is that they pay rates and taxes, and often also income tax and a range of companies’ tax through their businesses. They are also involved in civic organisations and charities making a contribution to communities.

The American Revolutionary cry of “no taxation without representation” comes to mind.

The framers of our final Constitution and the Constitutional Assembly, however, disagreed. The provision in Section 6 of the 1993 Interim Constitution was not carried over in the final Constitution. The section recognised the right to vote of non-citizens who have been accorded the franchise by an Act of Parliament.

Our Constitution (Section 19) limits political and voting rights to citizens alone — one the few rights limited in this manner, along with the right to a passport; the right to enter and leave the Republic or reside anywhere in it and the freedom to choose an occupation or trade.

Only adult citizens can vote, and while non-citizens may theoretically join political parties and campaign for them, the Constitution does not protect their right to do so. The former seems to be slightly at odds with the founding provisions which speak of universal adult suffrage.

The endowment of voting and political rights on all adult South Africans everywhere saw the Constitutional Court rule prior to the 2009 national and provincial elections that expats have a constitutional right to participate and vote — consistent with international practice — whether they reside within or beyond the borders of South Africa.

The government and governing party opposed these efforts, publicly due to the alleged administrative burden, but also quite likely because those who left weren’t die-hard supporters, as the eventual results demonstrated.

South Africans who no longer reside in or wish to reside in the country have a legitimate right to have their voice, and vote, heard in the determination of the future of their land of birth, even if they don’t pay any taxes.

Permanent residents, on the other hand, who have clearly indicated their desire to permanently reside in South Africa, who declare they have a vested interest in their new home country and its future, who pay rates and other taxes, and are often involved in community and charitable work, may not have their vote counted and their political voice is neither guaranteed nor protected.

Altering the current status quo, should we wish to do so, not only requires an extensive national dialogue, but also a change in the Constitution with the supporting vote of two-thirds of the members in the National Assembly and the concurring vote of six of the nine provinces.

While the ANC often woos the Hellenic, Portuguese and Italian communities I have yet to see that party publicly address this matter or take a position on the political and voting rights of permanent residents. Similarly, I am not aware of the DA having a particular position either.

While I have not extensively researched international practice on the voting rights of permanent residents, I do know they are not eligible to vote in Canada or the United States and can even be denied naturalisation if they attempt to vote in the latter.

Interestingly, Commonwealth and European Union citizens resident in the United Kingdom can register to vote and participate in elections. This is still open to Zimbabwean citizens despite the termination of that country’s Commonwealth membership. Maybe this is just a function of a guilty colonial conscience?

The issue is quite tricky and requires reflection and debate, especially given the fact that political rights for non-citizens are limited, despite all civil liberties and socio-economic rights being extended to every person within the borders of South Africa — including safety and security, housing, healthcare, water and sanitation, education and freedom of association, expression and demonstration.

Perhaps the debate is more properly centred on the definition, rights and responsibilities, if any, of citizenship in a globalised and interconnected world. Maybe the notion of citizenship has just been unable, or reluctant, to keep up with changing times in an increasingly global village.


  • Marius Redelinghuys is currently a DA National Spokesperson and Member of the National Assembly of Parliament. He is a 20-something "Alternative Afrikaner", fiancé to a fellow Mandela Rhodes Scholar (which has made him fortunate enough to be the only member of his family to converse with Tata Madiba) and father to two "un-African" Dachshunds. Marius is a former lecturer in political science and development studies at Midrand Graduate Institute and previously worked in the Gauteng Provincial Legislature as the DA Director of Communications and Research. He is also the Chairperson and a Director of the Board of the Mandela Rhodes Community, an alumni network of the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship.


  1. The Creator The Creator 30 January 2013

    Interesting. My brother-in-law has some DA connections and suggested to one of their leaders that the DA should support the enfranchisement of Zimbabweans, etc., as a speedy way of picking up votes. (Even if they didn’t get the law through, it would be a nice cheap way of seeming to be on the side of black people.) The leader didn’t think it would be a good idea, and my brother-in-law suspected that it might not play so well with South Africans.

    I’d assume that the primary reason for this plan would be political gain — it seems otherwise totally immoral and opportunistic. Incidentally, are there any other countries where non-citizens can vote?

  2. proactive proactive 30 January 2013

    Very good & valid points and worth the effort to follow on- especially for permanent residents who have indicated their desire to remain, have a vested interest, pay taxes and are economical contributors to the tax base and not users or a drain!

    It should be seriously considered, as a test to qualify, a minimum unbroken historical residence period could be set! It would also act as a balance to the many legal and illegal refugees and other persons who obtained citizenchip through pure fraud, burdening State recourses ever more.

    Further, it would be a just acknowledgment and incentive to such population groups for their valuable contributions to the State and its taxbase.

    In the end- it will not be a question of “should the vote” but a matter of “will they be allowed to vote”!

    Probably, it will just remain a discussion point, a numbers game for the insecure political leaders, who freeze for fear of possible gains to the opposition.

  3. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 30 January 2013

    It isn’t that difficult to become a South African citizen. If you have lived here for 5 years as a permanent resident and have a clean criminal record, you can apply. I have never heard of it being turned down.

    For me, the question is “do I want someone who has no (or limited) allegiance to my country, making decisions on who runs it?”, I am not a believer of duel citizenship either. When it comes to something as precious as my country, I only trust someone who has their colours firmly nailed to the post. You can’t obey two masters at the same time.

  4. -Sterling Ferguson -Sterling Ferguson 30 January 2013

    @Marius, in the US if one isn’t a US citizen, one can’t vote in this country. The children born to non citizen are automatic US citizens of this country. The only people that weren’t citizens and were born in the US were the black slaves. This is why the 13th amendment was passed to correct this problem. In SA are the children born in SA to foreign parents are automatically citizens of SA? If not, there are many stateless people in SA.

  5. Richard Richard 30 January 2013

    In the UK, any resident (legally) Commonwealth citizen can vote. This also used to be the case in South Africa until the country was expelled from the organisation in 1961. What this has led to in the UK is the Labour government of Tony Blair importing such people in their millions in the knowledge they would vote for them. In that way, foreigner voting plays directly into a country’s immigration laws, and makes it subject to self-interest and party-political motivation, rather than national interest. In other words, probably not a good idea.

  6. bernpm bernpm 30 January 2013

    Being a permanent resident in SA for over 30 years, SA accepted my vote in 1994. The second elections after 1994 my ID was stamped: “non SA citizen” and still do not vote other than indirectly by persuasion..

  7. DeeGee DeeGee 31 January 2013

    In a word, no. If they’d like to actively participate in the political landscape, take up citizenship. ‘Permanent’ in Permanent Resident is a bit misleading. In my view it just means that you’re resident for tax purposes. A PR can be given up, so I feel it’s still too transient….

  8. Tofolux Tofolux 31 January 2013

    Eish, speak about colonisation of mind and [email protected], it is an open secret that you did not participate in our struggle for liberation and that the very word, liberation might be a little over yo head. Your forefathers came to this country to colonise this country and continent much to this continents demise. The wholesale stealing of land, our rights, our way of life, murdering africans en masse is all attributed to people who did not originate from this continent. This proposal therefore smacks of gross insensitivity to the historical experiences of the very South African majority who lives here. Secondly, we have seen the impact and experiences of ex Rhodesians who came to this country because the apartheid govt decided that they should have dual nationality. It is these ex Rhodesians who are at the centre of being a stumble block to social cohesian in some communities. They are not loyal to our govt. They despise the ruling party and they are hell bent on creating apartheid style communities. This is a case in point where we have foreigners who believe that this country belongs to them as a minority and their rights must override the rights of the majority. Traditionally we have always been welcoming and open towards other communities and I am sure that this argument or proposal would not include our brothers/sisters who are African in particular. But clearly common sense must be prevail. The answer lies in our historical experiences of colonisation and imperialism.

  9. LittleBobPete LittleBobPete 31 January 2013

    I’ll tell you who should vote, foreigners or not. Those who contribute to the economy of this country. If foreigners contribute via tax, then give them the vote. At least they are willing to knuckle down and vote. Prisoners, who have denied society of something via theft, fraud, murder, rape etc have more say than many foreigners who contribute in a very positive way!
    Actually, your vote should be calculated into a points system. Your Tax assessment should give you a number of votes equal to your tax paid and you vote via your tax number. That way, those who “avoid” tax by shelving off cash all over the world and not contributing to our society should have less say. Those who don’t do their Tax assessments would have less say. People like Dave King who famously say that have no Tax liability would not be entitled to vote, as would chaps like Brett Kebble who for a number of years didn’t do Tax returns. People who hide personal expenses in company expenses to avoid tax, they have less say.
    What you get is, the greater your contribution to the society you live in, the greater your say in how it is run!

  10. The Critical Cynic The Critical Cynic 31 January 2013

    Here’s yet another example of where politics gets in the way of common sense and fair play.

    Anyone with a developed sense of fairness would endorse the following:
    Permanent residents, who have clearly indicated their desire to permanently reside in South Africa, who declare they have a vested interest in their new home country and its future, who pay rates and other taxes, and are often involved in community and charitable work, should have the right to vote, have their vote counted and their political voice guaranteed and protected.

    OR do we just treat permanent residents (who have… read above) as nobodies? Effectively we allow them to come and live here but strip them of the basic rights. That’s like saying “Come, you can live in our community and contribute to improving it, perhaps even for your entire life, but you have no rights and we can kick you out whenever it suits us”

    This is how the Arabs operate in the middle east (ask anyone who has worked there, even in the more ‘liberal’ Dubai) and worse than described above, but the effect of being a non-citizen with few or no rights is the same.

    We should be asking ourselves why it is that the world’s population don’t have free movement through the world yet money, goods, corporations, and the wealthy do?

  11. bernpm bernpm 31 January 2013

    @DeeGee: ” In a word, no. If they’d like to actively participate in the political landscape, take up citizenship. “. It might be a little more complicated than that!

    There might be some serious reason why not giving up old citizenship. Having paid for over 30 years towards a state pension, which could be denied to a non citizen, despite earlier contributions.

    Many could feel like many coloureds in SA: too white for here, too black for there. :-)

  12. -Sterling Ferguson -Sterling Ferguson 31 January 2013

    @Momma Cyndi, the free movement of people in the world would destroy N. America and many developed countries.

  13. Matoro Matoro 31 January 2013

    Marius, not a well thought out question. Why not rephrase it “If jail birds have the vote why not snow birds”.

  14. Richard Richard 31 January 2013

    @Tofolux, what are you on about? I didn’t see anything saying only white non-citizens should be given voting rights. There are about ten million illegal Africans (blacks, almost entirely) and perhaps a few thousand whites. As to the colonialism and imperialism, you almost certainly know that black people are not indigenous to South Africa, but come from the Great Lakes region. I don’t see how that fits into your argument, unless it is simply extraneous programming left-over from some Party School session.

  15. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 31 January 2013

    Do you know that black men had the vote before white women did in SA? In fact, some black men had the vote before my own male ancestors had the vote (we have never been the academic geniuses or land owners)

    Half of me praises Hertzhog for giving me the vote and the other half spits on him. Very confusing. That is who we are – confused

    To be a tax payer is to be a person who pays VAT. Now unless you are living on a beach eating brown bread, you are a tax payer. You may not be eligible for a certificate but you have contributed to the fiscus. You may not have read War and Peace but you may be able to write your own name.

    If you are born of a country and have allegiance to that country, it is irrelevant what your status is. You get a say. If you are holding a British/Mexican/Nigerian/anything passport then go tell YOUR country what to do. The fact that you are making money in MY country whilst your loyalties are to YOUR country does not give you any rights to make demands.

    As my daddy used to say, my house = my rules

  16. nina blair nina blair 1 February 2013

    This article is beyond stupid. No where in the world do non citizens have the right to vote.

    If you feel that strongly about being able to vote then become a citizen. Otherwise shut up and enjoy what is a privilege granted to you by your host country.

    When you move to a country and choose not to become a citizen you are there at the pleasure of that country’s government.

  17. mundundu mundundu 1 February 2013

    actually nina blair, you’re wrong, as stated above. commonwealth citizens resident in britain have the right to vote there. so do irish citizens resident in britain [ireland is not commonwealth]. this was the case *before* citizens of european union countries were permitted to vote.

    as someone who pays a significant amount of tax, i’ve decided that i will work as hard as i can to lower my tax burden to the point that the only money the government gets from me is VAT (which i can’t avoid), and that’s it.

    and momma cyndi, clearly you don’t know all that many permanent residents who have applied for citizenship. if you’re not a citizen, home affairs is still the useless entity that most citizens knew it as before the former mrs zuma “fixed” it.

  18. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 1 February 2013


    I have been married to a non-citizen with permanent residence for the past 27 years. Does that qualify as ‘knowing’ one? A few of his family now has citizenship. He doesn’t as an EU passport makes his travelling for work easier – that is the only reason.

  19. nina blair nina blair 1 February 2013

    Common wealth citizens are regarded as subjects of the Queen and EU citizens are allowed to vote in the EU elections, not the British parliamentary elections.

    Show me a country who allows its permanent residents, who have no connection to that country, other than a personal decision to move there, to vote in its elections.

  20. katynomad katynomad 2 February 2013

    @Nina – I’m glad you’re setting the record straight in this morass of misinformation. Let’s remember that people who live in Northern Ireland, the Scots, the Welsh, and the English are all part of one country, Great Britain, and therefore all vote in British parliamentary elections – but citizens of Ireland/Eire are NOT part of Great Britain (though Eire belongs to the EU) and do NOT vote in GB’s parliamentary elections. Permanent residence allows one to maintain a foothold in both worlds – a bolthole, if you will. There are also often strong emotional/family reasons (not just practical ones) why one may not want to give up the citizenship of one’s birth country to take on the citizenship of the country in which one lives. And Nina is right in saying that non-citizens cannot vote anywhere in the world.

  21. Marius Redelinghuys Marius Redelinghuys Post author | 2 February 2013

    Dear Nina,

    Please see here about “who can register to vote” in the United Kingdom.

    “You can register to vote if you are: 16 years old or over and a British citizen or an Irish, qualifying Commonwealth or European Union citizen who is resident in the UK”

    The list of Commonwealth countries even include Mozambique, which was never a British colony but applied to be a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

    The Commonwealth status is dependent on membership of the ‘organisation’, not dependency / protectorate / subject status.

    You are also wrong by saying no country allows non-citizens the right to vote: please read about individual cases here. You would be surprised at how common / widespread and complex / varied it is.

  22. proactive proactive 2 February 2013


    although not too important, but just as a principle:…….one should rather be more careful and separate strong personal choices & opinions from the varied factual and global regulations which exist- as professionally demonstrated by Marius- which do expose a certain degree of naivety on that matter!

  23. Gert van den Berg Gert van den Berg 2 February 2013

    Naturalized citizens seem to be able to vote… But a lot of the foreigners seem to be happy with permanent residence…

    Certain benefits, such as counting for BEE purposes, voting, government subsidies / housing should be limited to citizens. (Including naturalized citizens) Government should first take care of the ones that are here because we were born here, before caring for those that chose to come here, knowing the limitations. It should also reduce instances where foreigners are attacked, in many cases after obtaining benefits, like government housing, that citizens have been unable to obtain.

    For Zimbabweans, the main problem seem to be that their government would require them to give up their Zimbabwean citizenship in order to be allowed to obtain South African citizenship…. Some other countries might have similar limitations on dual-citizenship… (Interestingly, the US tend to disallow security clearances to dual-citizens, especially those refusing to give up their foreign passports)

  24. Katynomad Katynomad 3 February 2013

    @Marius – thanks for the interesting link – I’ve learned something!

  25. Conner Conner 5 February 2014

    I am a permanent citizen – have been so for the past 19 years -since my parents moved to South Africa in 1995.

    I have married a South African – have two beautiful children who are South African. I have schooled here, currently working and I love South Africa- however I travel and I need my passport as it seems South African passports are slightly on the dodgy side (i’m being flippant)

    I want to vote- I care about South Africa, I love this country! I encourage all my colleagues, friends and even strangers to register to vote. I also am a law abiding resident, who pays taxes and have my own business which employs over 50 South African people.

    So why cant I vote? -but someone living in the uk for the past 20years because he/she “hates our government/better pay/scared” gets to vote?

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