Do away with the Principal Residence and capacitate Registration Officers

06 Sep 2019

By Adam Phatlhe

Registering to vote and eventually voting is a Constitutional right that should not be denied unless under extremely exceptional circumstances. And standing for political office as a consequence of having registered as a voter should not be easily denied unless also under exceptional circumstances. The Electoral Act together with the Constitution describe who is entitled to be registered as a voter and so on. The question of Principal Residence has recently become an intense talking point where it ended at the apex court of the land, the Court of Appeal. As it turned it, some Batswana have been denied the right to stand for political office like the late Rre Almond Tafa while others could be standing on the brink of being so denied. All this thanks to the Principal Residence issue. It is in this context I argue that Principal Residence be done away with because it doesn’t serve any useful purpose except that it stands to deny Batswana the right to register as voters and also the right to stand for political office.

It is not in dispute that Batswana and generally speaking, have more than one place of residence being the place where they spend most of their time on one hand and masimo (ploughing fields) and moraka (where they largely keep their livestock) on the other. While I accept that masimo and moraka in some cases may not boast modern amenities, they are still residences with people residing thereat. I also equate them to a Motswana owning a modern residence in the city, the second at his home village and the third elsewhere in the country. It is also not in dispute that Batswana are permitted to set up a home everywhere and anywhere in the country. Flowing from these factual positions, Batswana have over the years to date chosen to register and vote where they deemed fit. Some have taken their votes across constituencies where they feel their interests whatever those could be, will be better served and they continue to do so.

The President for example spends most of his time in Gaborone because his job so requires yet he has registered to vote in his home village. If there was a registration point either at his moraka or masimo, he would be perfectly entitled to register to vote thereat.  So why should other Batswana run the risk of being denied the right to register to vote at their other residences simply because such residences may be classified as not principal while it is accepted, after all, that they have three places of residence as alluded to above? I am not suggesting for a minute that there should be no controls to such registration but that it should not put unnecessary barriers in the process.

The recent Court of Appeal interpretation of Principal Residence in the matter between Mothusi States Maribe and Dorcas Kgobela Makgatho held that “The question of whether a residence is a principal one for purposes of Section 67 (3) (a) of the Constitution, is primarily to be determined on objective facts. The subjective factor prevails only where a court cannot on the facts before it decide which of the residences is the principal one. A court will not readily make a finding that a particular place is not a principal place of residence except where on any view of the facts, the prospective voter’s choice of residence as the principal one is unsustainable.”  When ruling on the same case in favour of Minister Makgatho, the Mahalapye Magistrate observed that the ‘objective facts’ were heavily in favour of the Minister hence her registration as a voter in her constituency, valid. It stands to reason therefore that should Minister Makgatho decide in future to register at her other residence for the 2024 general election, the ‘objective facts’ that should obtain by virtue of her connection to that residence, should allow her to do so without any qualms. Equally so, the very same facts should apply to other Batswana owning more than one residence who may elect to register thereat. In these circumstances, I humbly argue principal residence becomes inconsequential.

Voter trafficking has been suggested in the registration phase of elections as a cause of concern and rightly so. It has in fact become part and parcel of elections. This will to some extent be possible owing to whether registration processes and procedures are reasonably water tight to detect and stop it. But who should be surprised that voter trafficking is evidently possible when the registration officer doesn’t display confidence and authority that he/she is fully in charge of the voter registration in one respect or the other? I have questioned the technical and legal know-how of registration officers with respect to how much power and authority is vested in them by the Electoral Act. This power and authority is provided for in Sections 10 and 11 of the Electoral Act. Nothing suggests by any stretch of the imagination with respect to the registration process by registration officers that the power and authority vested in them is fully exercised hence the greater possibility of voter trafficking taking place. The only thing registration officers are good at is to check the validity of one’s O Mang (ID). The long and short of this is that the registration processes and procedures as of now are simply and with respect, susceptible to aiding and abetting voter trafficking. In this day and age of information technology, voter registration should be fully automated particularly from the registration desk where the whole critical and crucial process begins. One expects registration centres to be linked to avoid double registering which consequently, would lead to voter trafficking reduction or better still, possible elimination.

The principal residence requirement if I may call it that for lack of a better description, should be done away with for I believe it doesn’t serve any purpose given the multi-residential nature of this country. As long as a Motswana can prove attachment of whatever nature to these residences, ‘objective facts’ as elucidated in the Court of Appeal judgement should not be difficult to find. It will be sad if a Motswana is denied his/her Constitutional right to fully participate in the participatory democracy of this country via a political process like an election on the basis of whether this or the other residence is principal or not. Powers that be should wake from their slumber to ensure that the registration of voters is taken very seriously by capacitating registration officers such that they are able to enforce the power and authority vested in them by the Electoral Act. The seemingly laissez faire attitude towards the value and importance of registration officers somewhat puts a stain in the electoral process of this country. The fact that registration officers were complaining about their wages among others during the first phase of registration speaks volumes about the quality of service they may have rendered. And not out of their own making but the powers that be. I am prepared to be persuaded otherwise. Judge for Yourself!