Four long years. That’s how long we had to wait before we got our first election in 1994. Okay, we had to wait forever during the struggle against Apartheid, but we had four long years of negotiations from when Nelson Mandela was released until we got our date – 27 April 1994. But now the date was set. And I just had to be part of that. So I registered myself as a volunteer to work on election day. And what a day it turned out to be.
I could feel that their was something special in the air. Something that I will never see again or experience again. I got up ready to be part of history. I rushed to put on some decent clothes and unmatched socks (that was my image back then!) I am a voting officer – please step back from that voting booth and put your X when I can see them. The power! I even had a special badge to say what I was – Voting Officer. My first badge. Plastic – but still a badge.
First I had to go for a session with the two guys in charge. Yes, two guys. The Apartheid National Party didn’t trust the ANC and the ANC didn’t trust the NP. So we had one from each side co-managing each voting station. I was stationed at Stellenbosch central – the town hall. The biggest turnout of our town for the day was going to be there. And we had a bureaucrat from the Nats leading their side and a cool guy from the ANC leading from the other side. (Okay – you don’t get extra points for knowing who I voted for). And these two guys was going to tell us what we can do and what we can’t do – and the role of each person.
But what a sight when I turned the corner that leads to the town hall. People waiting in lines for as far as the eye can see. There was still a few hours before we opened the doors and the people was already waiting to vote. The hair on my neck stood up. History. You could smell it. You could taste it. And now you can see it.
What struck me was how quiet people were. No partying. No shouting and hardly any laughing. Just a silence as people stood in the queue waiting for the doors to open so that they could go and vote. People just staring at that door. A little wave when people recognized each other. But it was deadly silent most of the time. I expected people to celebrate. Come on – we are in Africa. We make a noise and party when the kid drools for the first time. Only later did I realize why. People still couldn’t believe that it was happening. And they did not want to do anything until they saw those doors open. After so many years of hardship they still could not believe that the Apartheid regime won’t try and pull a fast one. I managed a few smiles and got a few back-slaps – and off I went to get this baby started.
Oh man. That guy from the Nats was the pits. Telling us the obvious things and being as wet and square as Spongebob Squarepants. Really, it was like pulling teeth. We just wanted to get on with it. At least the guy from the ANC got us all worked up and rallied us by reminding us what this day was all about. And that we had a big responsibility in helping people today. Today we make history. And then the representatives from all the political parties came in. The serious ones had their suits on – the Nats and the Democratic Party. The ANC had their more relaxed African shirts on. And the rest just came with whatever they could find in the closet. And they were a bunch of oddballs!
We had the Right Party (slightly leftie politics), the Green Party (the vegans), the Minority Party (basically one guy), the Merit Party (old head-boys), the Federal Party (wanted their own land), the KISS party (Keep It Straight and Simple), the Soccer Party (almost got my vote) and a bunch with names no one could pronounce. Hey, we figured that if everyone could vote then everyone should be able to register as a party as well. Maybe not one of our better ideas. But they were all there – ready to join in the fun. Except for the KISS Party who took things way to seriously – especially with a name like that. No hugs and no kisses.
My first job was to help the people outside. Especially the older people. I was allowed to move them up the line and help them vote. It was a nice one – I got to mingle with the crowd outside. There was no trouble – except for a few political parties who broke the “no canvassing within 500 meters” rule. They just drove past and honked and waved flags. Not really canvassing – just having fun on the day.
And people had fun by now. Almost everyone got their identity books in the months leading up to the election. And I mean everyone. I’ll never forget one of the first guys who came outside after he voted. He was what we called a bergie– a homeless guy. I guess he was way up in the lines because he slept outside the town-hall. He came out beaming with his two front teeth missing. And as he got to the top of the steps he looked at the crowd, threw his arms in the air and shouted “my vote is my secret – I voted DP (Democratic Party)” (For those who know Afrikaans – he was a Capie and shouted “My stem is my geheim. Ek vote die DP”). The crowd packed up laughing. It summed up the day perfectly – everyone having their say and starting to having fun.
There is a story why his words were particularly funny at the time. We had a long running campaign about people voting for whoever they wanted to vote for – and that their vote would be in secret. The slogan was – Your Vote, Your Secret. It was everywhere because people thought that with the fingerprints and everything that the Apartheid government will come and get them – that they will know who voted for who and get them if they voted ANC. The ads obviously worked. And he remembered this, just not all the detail.
The queue never got any shorter during the day. People just kept on coming – 1,000+ people standing in line at any time during the day and all waiting to vote. Waiting patiently. It was hot, even though it was autumn. I was handing out water when I saw him. An old, old man standing in the queue – almost right at the back. He must have been close to a hundred. He was frail and leaning against his walking stick. You could see he came from a tough background – a farmworker most likely. I went up to him and took him by his hand and told him I’ll take him to the voting booth. He smiled and off we went – walking slowly.
We talked a bit while we took our slow walk to the voting hall. Not politics of course – I wasn’t allowed to talk politics because I was an “independent” voting officer. It became apparent that he couldn’t read or write. But he wanted to vote – that was his right. And it was likely not only his first time of voting, but his last one. I promised I would help him – that was my job. I took him to the booth and asked him to look at the pictures and tell me who he wanted to vote for – any faces or parties he recognized? He looked carefully and then shook his head. No, his man wasn’t there. He said it as if he knew who his “man” was. I asked him if he could tell me who his man was as I might be able to tell him what party his man belonged to. He looked at me and said, “I want to vote for Jannie Smuts”. I felt like hugging the guy. Smuts died in 1950. And Smuts was a racist who tried everything to stop this old man from getting his right to vote.
But we sorted that out – I called all the parties together and got them to argue it out. The old man voted in the end. For the National Party – the party who denied him his right to vote for all those Apartheid years. And the party who defeated Smuts in the general election back in 1948. I don’t know how Smuts would have felt about that one.
The rest of the day went off smoothly. I helped people to vote and spoke to people in the queue. It was all fun and games by now. Friendly bantering and sharing of good times. It felt as if this was the most natural thing we could do – voting. Of course it should be, but this was a special day.
I eventually went to vote myself. I stood in that booth for a few minutes – like almost every other voter that day. This was my turn and our time. I knew who I was going to vote for. With Biko dead for so many years already the Africanist still had a leadership vacuum. Even with Hani assassinated I knew that there was only one man and one party for me. I made my cross next to the ANC and had a lump in my throat. I was shaking slightly. Done. It is done. A vote at last. Take us where you want Madiba.
That night I turned into an accountant. Okay, not that exciting. I turned into a Counting Officer. Off we went to get locked up in a huge hall and start counting those votes. And we counted and we counted. And the parties looked on to make sure that we didn’t miss anything. No idea why the Kiss Party and the other small ones hung around – we couldn’t exclude their votes even if we wanted to. No one voted for them. Come on – the Right Party got less than 1,000 votes across the whole of South Africa. And then they started moaning and bitching – the smaller parties – and we had to count all over again. And it went on and on. Till early in the morning. All they gave us was crap coffee and even worse hamburgers. But it was worth it. Because eventually it was all done. Votes counted and our work done. Our first election was officialy over – done and dusted.
I have been busy at the elections for almost 24 hours by now. First helping the voters and then counting their votes. I was knackered. I just wanted to sleep. But as I hit the bed it hit me. I was part of history. I was part of the greatest day in our country’s life. Each person that voted that day did it with passion – for the right and the wrong reasons. But each of us – all of us – had our day to vote at last. And each one of those votes was done for a reason. People did it because this was the most important election of their lives. There will never be another. I was there when we became a nation. No. I was passing the bricks as we build that nation on 27 April 1994. Smuts would not have been proud.