My First Election, Our First Election

I try to stay away from politics in the public arena as much as possible. We have political discussions and debates at home but as far as getting into the public debate, I am a bit of a chicken really and politicians for the most part, bring the worst out in me. But all this talk around of elections and presidents and politicians, brought back some fond memories for me – a time when all South Africans could vote for the very first time: South Africa’s first real election.

 The year was 1994 and South Africans from every race and group were allowed to vote for the first time. Hubby and I had been married for just under six months and were still students. We decided to sign up to work for the election – two reasons really. Firstly, we were part of this historic happening and process – we had watched Madiba being released from prison and went to watch him talk on campus. Secondly, as students, there was no denying the money was good. We would earn three months worth of ‘salary’ in a matter of three days – how great is that.

There were fears of course amongst the ‘white’ population that as soon as the election happened, things would go downhill – as soon as that first democratic and free ballot was cast, there would be no electricity, no food on the shelves and definitely no petrol. They were stockpiling candles and gas lamps, tinned food, bottled water and other basics. Our concerned family thought that we should do the same so sent us, the poor students, money to get all the basic necessities that would tide us over a few months. We accepted the money, filled the car up with petrol, bought food – but we bought calamari and shrimp because we could not really afford it, we bought bottles of wine and a crate or two of beer – we were not heavy drinkers so strictly speaking, we were stockpiling. Things did not go tits up during or immediately after the election and I think, when my father-in-law died and they cleaned out his house, they still found cans of corned beef and packets and packets of candles – this is 14 years after the election!

We reported for duty at 4am on the morning of April 27th, 1994. Ready to work this historic day. Alot of media had concentrated on the fact that ‘your vote is your secret’ (Jou stem is jou geheim) amidst fears of intimidation and retaliation for not voting for the right party. It was a misty day but you could see the excitement in the air and you could hear in the conversations. Hubby and I worked as voting officers on the first two days and my job was to check that there wasn’t any invisible ink on your hands so as to avoid election fraud. I sat for 12 hours behind a table and watched the most fascinating group of people file in to cast their ballot.

There were the die-hard supporters of the National Party and the Apartheid Regime. They were grumpy and looked concerned as though they were lining up to have their hearts removed (did they have any?). This election was nothing but a curse to them and they felt betrayed by the National Party who had made this shift to grant one man, one vote. It was traitorous to them and a sign of things to come.

Then there was the next generation. Younger and more excited about the future and what it would hold. Educated and some seeing the error in their fore fathers ways, these voters smiled and joked about the day and the significance of it all and made their mark before going out to celebrate with a good old beer and braai.

And then…there were those who had never had the right to cast their ballot and determine their own future. This was their first time. An old woman stood before me and was reduced to tears as she started the process of making her voice heard. “I have been waiting for this for 60 years,” she said to me. She moved slowly but purposefully through the line. I watched her all the way. As she left the building, she lifted her eyes and offered a short thanks to the powers who that day, proved to her that justice has been done for her and the generations before and after her. Finally she had the power.

There was an old man who came in with the help of his great grand children. He was almost blind and could not read the ballot paper and so the various political party observers had to stand by while the official from the Independent Electoral Commission had to read out his options (no easy task, there were 19 parties on the national ballot alone). He contently listened to his options, having waited all his life to vote, he was not in a hurry now. When the options were finished being read, he looked up confused at one of his group and asked which party ‘Jannie Smuts’ was standing for. This took everyone by suprise because Jannie Smuts was not only a National Party former Prime Minister but he was the Prime Minister between 1919 and 1924 and then again from 1939 to 1948! He died on September 11, 1950. We were all a little astounded and his great grand children took the time to explain to him that General Smuts was dead and that now, he had a choice, he did not have to vote for the National Party. He made his mark and left, his heart a little lighter than what it was when he came in.

One guy in particular caught my attention. He was a little inebriated when he walked in and being the day it was, he was really doing no harm and they let him through. He happily sang as he had his hands checked, his Identity document marked and took his ballot papers to the booth. He made his crosses and smiled a wide, toothless smile as he posted the paper into the slot. He walked out the town hall and stood on the stairs and shouted at the top of his lungs:

“My stem is my geheim…ek vote vir die DP!” [My vote is my secret and I voted for the DP (Democratic Party)]

The long line still waiting outside, laughed and applauded – not necessarily for the party which he chose, but for fact that four years ago, he was not able to do that.

After all the voting was done, the time came to count the ballots. We were confined to the sports center and the counting started at around 8pm. We were not allowed to leave the building and so the Commission provided us with drinks and snacks. But we were hungry, I had some money on me and convinced the police standing guarded outside the burglar proofed window to go to the local take out and buy Hubby and I some burgers. They were delicious – it was 3am and I was so so hungry by that stage. We counted votes, tallied them up and shared jokes with those seated at our table. We were tired but the exhaustion was worth it. We were part of a wonderful and unique process.

Some one once said to me “There are only two types of government, a corrupt government and a more corrupt government.” So fourteen years down the line and things are looking different in South Africa. Like any new democracy (and in the grander scheme of things, a 14-year old democracy is young) there have been some major teething problems, some scheming and corrupt officials driven by greed have got themselves into power wielding positions and the gravy train has not been derailed yet. But I have hope that with time, it will all come right because the people (not the politicians) have that dream of a wonderful country beating in their chests and the younger generations do not want South Africa just to be another African statistic.  

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~ by ski holidays on April 7, 2008.

One Response to “My First Election, Our First Election”

  1. Still got some of the canned prawns left?

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