Report on Study Tour to Russia; Lovemore legislative proposal to amend Electoral Act so South Africans living abroad may vote

Home Affairs

28 May 2012
Chairperson: Ms M Maunye ANC
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Meeting Summary

The Committee received a briefing on a draft report regarding the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) study tour to Russia, as well as a request for the Committee’s comments on a Private Members’ Legislative Proposal to amend the Electoral Act, 1998 to allow South African citizens living abroad to register and vote in national and provincial elections.

The report detailed the Committee’s study tour to Russia, which took place from March 16-26 and was focussed on Russian immigration policy. As Russia had similar demographic factors yet contrasting issues related to refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants, it was selected for its comprehensive and integrated procedures in this regard.
One area of significant interest to the Members was the fact that Russia kept track of migrants using biometric data. New arrivals to Russia also had to register with local police or immigration authorities in the community where they lived. Apart from illegal migrants, Russian officials were able to provide a good idea of the total numbers of migrants living within Russian borders at any one time. While South Africa was currently considering adopting the first “safe country of asylum” principle, in Russia this did not apply.
Russian policies on attracting skilled labour were mentioned, with specific reference to the setting up and development of academic and scientific hubs with special arrangements and relaxed entrance requirements for skilled workers. In terms of state migration policy coordination, Russia required health checks for new arrivals, and immigrants were encouraged to learn the Russian language and were provided with acculturation classes.
The interaction between Russian and South African officials had led to unanticipated outcomes, an example of which was an interest in visa exemptions between both countries.
In principle, the draft report was endorsed by the Members.  However, they offered lengthy criticism of the grammatical construction, word usage, and syntax demanding that the report be cleaned up and reissued prior to adoption.  It was also requested that more focus be given to recommendations which could have a bearing on developing new policies for the South African immigration system
Members also decided unanimously to withhold comments on the proposed Private Members’ Legislation to amend the Electoral Act, citing a need for clarification of the proposal and lack of expertise on the issue.  They requested that the matter be sent back to study groups and party caucuses.

Meeting report

Briefing by Parliamentary Research Unit (PRU)
Mr Adam Salmon, Researcher, PRU, began the presentation by stating that the final, grammatically correct draft report on the study tour to the Russian Federation was not yet available. This led to some consternation among the Members who proceeded to raise many questions relating to the formulation of the document, sentence structure, and wording issues. As the document was only a draft edition, Mr Salmon noted that as yet no feedback had been given by Members, so he would proceed to offer an outline.

The study tour to Russia had taken place from 16 to 26 March 2012, and was attended by eight delegate Members. The purpose of the tour was to inform Members on best practices regarding immigration policy, and specifically the existing structures and policies in force within the Russian Federation.  Focus was also placed on attracting highly skilled migrants, border management, and asylum policy. The choice of Russia was due to the fact that it is a member of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), the emerging economic bloc of five states, as well as possessing similar demographics to South Africa.

It was emphasised that the interaction between Committee Members and the State Duma (the Russian Parliament) had been fruitful, although no visits to Ports of Entry had been arranged due to a lack of organisation time caused by the recent Russian elections.  Members had also met with local officials and the South African ambassador to Russia.

Given the high rates of unemployment in Russia, immigration was an extremely divisive issue, particularly as the country faced a growing shortage of skilled workers, a scenario which is similar to South Africa. Mr Salmon presented an overview of immigration-related legislation, noting that the measures were complex yet well integrated. These included the Law on Refugees, 1993, the Law on Forced Migrants, 1995, and the Law on Status Migration, 2006.

One area of significant interest to the Members was the fact that Russia kept track of migrants using biometric data. New arrivals to Russia also had to register with local police or immigration authorities in the community where they lived. Apart from illegal migrants, Russian officials were able to provide a good idea of the total numbers of migrants living within Russian borders at any one time. While South Africa was currently considering adopting the first “safe country of asylum” principle, in Russia this did not apply.

Due to the immense geographic size of Russia, it is broken into 83 separate regions and the report noted the impressive ability to manage such a large area after only two decades under a democratic regime. Mr Salmon believed that the two states have had similar trajectories, but different regimes were in action.

The interaction between Russian and South African officials led to unanticipated outcomes, an example of which was an interest in visa exemptions between both countries. Russian officials told the South African delegation that a National Migration Policy was being developed to address problems preventing effective migration control. The aim of the new policy was to create sustainable conditions that stimulated trade and tourism while preventing criminal activity and curbing illegal migration.

Examples of regional integration and free trade between Russia and other former Soviet-bloc nations were given as a possibility for enhancing relations between South Africa and its own neighbouring states in southern Africa.

Russian policies on attracting skilled labour were mentioned, with specific reference to the setting up and development of academic and scientific hubs with special arrangements and relaxed entrance requirements for skilled workers. In terms of state migration policy coordination, Russia required health checks for new arrivals, and immigrants were encouraged to learn the Russian language and were provided with acculturation classes. The Russian Federal Migration Service had agreements to assist migrants with local churches and NGOs impacting on the speed with which new migrants could integrate into society.
Also discussed was the possibility of extending visa exemptions to diplomats, with future consideration of the elimination of student visa requirements.  This was referred to as a possible recommendation to be passed along to DHA.

In conclusion, Russia was described as possessing a more securitized than humanitarian approach to immigration, which could be one possible trajectory for South Africa. It was also noted that South Africa would need to consider the benefits and limits on travel, trade, labour and many other factors that were affected by the type of immigration policy adopted in the country in the coming year.


Discussion
Mr A Gaum (ANC) was dismayed at the state of grammar and the number of errors within the draft document. He proceeded to single out specific examples before asking that more attention be paid to making concrete recommendations for policy implementation within the “conclusions and observations” section. He said that he would be uncomfortable in accepting the document in its present uncorrected form, despite the overall accuracy of its content.

Mr G McIntosh (COPE) first paid tribute to Mr Salmon and Mr Eddie Mathonsi (Committee Secretary) for their excellent tour coordination, and thanked them for their hard work. He also expressed concern with the language used within the document and asked that one of the most interesting findings from the tour - an electronic map of Russia, detailing the movement of migrants within all 83 individual regions - be noted in the report. He also mentioned that the situation facing Russia of many migrants coming from former Soviet-bloc countries for economic and cultural reasons was similar to South Africa’s current state of affairs, with large numbers of foreign migrants clamouring to enter the country.

Mr Gaum said that the document should include the involvement of Russian regions in tracking foreign nationals within the state. This should then be applied in the South African context and consideration given to a possible role for the provinces. He also wished to have information included on the dispensation for people who work in Russia and come from former Soviet states, with reference to the basis on which they were given a work permit and paid tax. He noted that a nominal amount had to be paid as a monthly registration fee for foreign nationals, and indicated the extreme relevancy these questions had for South Africa. Also mentioned was the fact that in total there were very few refugees in Russia. Mr Gaum asked that these issues be explained in the report, and that they should be a focal point within the document.

The Chairperson noted the differences in immigration policy between South Africa and Russia, highlighting the fact that in Russia one could not apply for citizenship even after five years of continuous residence.  She also expressed a strong desire for an IT system similar to that of Russia to be implemented in South Africa, with good tracking of persons.   She gave the example of Russian officials who were able to demonstrate to the Committee delegates where South Africans were living in Russia, their total numbers, as well as how many work permits had been issued to South Africans and how many were still in process. The Chairperson advised there would be no adoption of the draft report until it had been amended.

Ms G Bothman (ANC) indicated there was a need for greater comparison between the Russian and South African models, which could then be refined and lead to implementation of new strategies within the country. She also wanted to know what immigration policies were like in other countries and what remedies existed to deal with arising issues with a view to strengthening the overall approach to immigration policy reform.  She asked that more in-depth research be conducted.

The Chairperson noted the stringency imposed in other countries in terms of rules governing immigration, while deriding the current structure in South Africa. In this light she raised the fact that employers who employed illegal foreigners in Russia incurred a USD $20,000 fine.

Ms Bothman brought up the matter of higher education exchanges and wished to know whether South Africa could identify positive aspects of education and development within Russia so that South Africans could benefit through the establishment of a study exchange programme.

Mr Salmon promised to finalise the draft report by Friday.


Lovemore legislative proposal to amend Electoral Act so South Africans living abroad may vote

Mr Salmon explained that chapter 14 section 3 of the rules of the National Assembly dictated that committees may engage in making proposals and petitions. He continued by noting that the Legislative submission from Ms A Lovemore (DA) was  tabled to the Speaker in October 2011 but had only just come before the Committee for comment on recommendations that the Electoral Act be amended to give overseas South Africans the ability to register and vote in national and provincial elections. Amendments would be made to both the Electoral Act and the Provincial Electoral Act.
The general intention under the Constitution was for the electoral system to be fair, inclusive, simple and accountable. He gave an example of two court cases which referred to overseas voters and that recommended the establishment of voting capability at overseas embassies and consulates. The possibility of considerable financial costs was also noted. 

Six sections of the Electoral Act would be affected by the amendments. He explained that the Act could potentially be amended purely in terms of regulation 33 1(b), which applied to government members who were overseas at the time of elections. The Committee could also ask the Electoral Commission to prescribe a certain sub-section of voters to set out rules on how South Africans living abroad could vote. Another possibility would be to simply specify in the regulations what procedures needed to be followed and who wais able to vote.

Mr Salmon closed by stating that the likeliest outcome was that the recommendations made by the Committee would become part of the larger amendment process.

Discussion
Mr Eddie Mathonsi, Committee Secretary, said that the Committee on Private Members’ Legislative Proposals and Special Petitions had requested submission of Members’ comments by May 22, but that Mr Gaum had written a letter stating that more time was needed before the matter could be discussed.

Mr Gaum responded that the Committee on Private Members’ Legislative Proposals had been informed in writing that the request for comments would be placed on the agenda, but as the matter had remained unresolved he proposed that it should be taken back to study groups and party caucuses, and brought back to the Committee within about two weeks.

Mr M Mnqasela (DA) took the position that the Committee Members had not had a lot of opportunity to engage with the matter, so he requested it be deferred until the next Committee meeting.

Ms H Makhuba (IFP) agreed with the Mr Gaum on sending the matter back to party caucuses and said that as this was a political matter, there was a need to look at the constitutional ramifications of any amendments.

Mr G McIntosh (COPE) stated that the real issue was that the mechanisms that allowed South Africans to vote were expensive and cumbersome. He added that in a democracy everyone should have the right to vote, but he questioned whether it was the responsibility of the Committee to come to a conclusion on this issue. Electoral commissions around the world enabled voting for overseas citizens, and he seemed to think the process could be made much easier through the introduction of technology. Mr McIntosh was in general agreement with the other Members that the matter be referred back to the Electoral Commission for issuance of a more concrete proposal on amendments to the system, emphasising that Committee Members were not technical staff. He closed by saying that in principle, the Members supported the changes, yet while the Committee may have had the ability to make constructive proposals, it would require more time for deliberation.

Ms Bothman asked that the matter be more clearly defined and then brought back before the Committee for further consideration.

Mr Gaum proposed that the Committee write a letter to the Electoral Commission as a matter of urgency to ask for the Commission’s interpretation of the judgement passed down by the Constitutional Court. He also requested that copies of the judgement be procured for all Members.

The Chairperson asked that a report on the estimated costs involved in creating a system to allow South Africans living abroad to register and vote, be issued by the Electoral Commission. She said that all options would be looked into but that a letter to the Commission would be sent out and the matter first dealt with by individual political parties prior to submission to the Committee.

The meeting was adjourned.

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