Mental health care institutions are disappointed that people living with mental illness will not be allowed to vote in the May 8 national elections.

This comes after Parliament recently refused to amend a law preventing people declared to be of unsound mind by the High Court and those detained under the Mental Health Act from voting.

South Africa currently has over 30 000 people who are in mental healthcare institutions.

Thirty-seven-year-old,  Karabo Kgoleng, a former radio broadcaste, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teenager and has been institutionalised four times.

She says mental healthcare users who have not been committed for psychosis and extreme mental illness, should be allowed to cast a special vote.

Kgoleng says, “Mental illness is not your fault and to criminalise people who are ill is worse than criminals who are people who make a decision to rob people of their safety, of their lives, of their dignity and still give them as an opportunity to vote, it doesn’t make sense. ”

The South African Federation for Mental Health which has been lobbying the Independent Electoral Commission to change the law for the past eight years agrees with Kgoleng.

The federation’s Nicole Breen says the right to vote is an important constitutional entitlement and psychiatric patients have a right to vote.

Breen says, “It is a component to the right to dignity as well as the right to equality, people with mental illness have been prolifically excluded from a lot of areas of societal life, including the right to vote and this has the effect that they are quite literally disenfranchised and denied the opportunity to contribute to where our country is going politically as well as in terms of who will serve them.”

Professor Crick Lund, who is the director at the Alan J Flisher Centre for Public Mental Health, says there should be provisions for assisted decision making where necessary.

Lund says, “The fact that a person has a mental illness is not a basis on its own to exclude people from the right to vote and people can be assisted to make informed decisions by clinicians or family members so that they are able to participate as full as people in society .”

Independent Electoral Commission Deputy Chief Electoral Officer, Masego Shiburi says they approached Parliament to amend the law but it was left unchanged.

Shiburi says, “As part of our review of legislation ahead of the May election, we prepared a draft amendment bill for consideration by Parliament, that bill contained a number of things that we thought should be considered for inclusion into the act or removal from the act, part of it was the removing of the mental requirement but a policy decision was taken that the provision have a basis therefore they should remain as part of our law.”