It Was Twenty Years Ago Today…

27 Apr

This is what the Hub, Tory Boy and I were doing today in 1994, one of the best days of our lives: 

Not eating biscuits: queuing.

Not eating biscuits: queuing.

The first day of polling in the first Free & Fair South African election.

We were living in Alberton in the Transvaal at the time.  We got up early to be at the polling station for seven, when it opened.  We didn’t want to be stuck in queues all day long.  The government had declared a national holiday so that everyone could vote, and it seemed like everyone intended to.

We were first in the queue, but only just.  Not that it did us any good: we were still first in the queue come four o’clock in the afternoon.  There were no ballot papers at the polling station.  The election officials popped out periodically to tell us that they were on the way – in a helicopter now – would be here any minute.  None ever showed up, except on auction sites in the last few years.

In spite of this, and in spite of the news of bombs going off at the airport, the mood of the crowd was, well, joyous.  There was a lot of singing and a lot of braaing (barbecuing): those who came later and knew about the long wait brought their skottels (a portable gas barbecue) and fold-up deck chairs.  The Hub went home to make us some sandwiches and drinks, but I wish we had braaied instead.

Whole families turned out to vote.  We had four-year old Tory Boy with us.  I have another photo of him, sitting glumly on the kerb, unaware that he was participating in a truly momentous event in South African history.  He’s grateful now, of course.

We chatted to everyone around us.  There was a tearful old man who had never believed that he would ever get the chance to cast his vote.  There were Afrikaaners, resigned to the inevitable and taking it gracefully; and many who welcomed it.  I suppose those with strong opposition to the change were at home, planning protests.  People of every race, tribe, ethnicity, colour and political persuasion stood in that queue and waited with great patience for the ballot papers that never arrived.

There were no murmurings or angry voices, but there were a lot of rumours about what was happening in the rest of the country.  We were in a capsule, a moment in time when we were all in this together, all looking toward a happy and prosperous future; each believing that things would be better, fairer, and right.  We were in the mood to party, not fight.

No ballots came.

Because of our tired little boy, we wondered if we should go home and come back next day – the election was intended to be held over two days, but lasted three because of the issue of having nothing on which to cast your vote – but then we heard there was a magical polling station a few miles on which did have ballot papers, and even enough to go round.  We thought it was worth trying because we really did want to cast our vote on a day that would go down in history.  We wanted Tory Boy to be able to say that he was there. 

I don’t remember where either polling station was, except that the first was in a suburb and the other in a huge, unkempt field.  At the second, we joined a slightly smaller queue that we could see was moving, though it didn’t have the atmosphere of the first.    It took three hours but we got inside at last. 

The most bizarre moment of the day for me was when I went into the booth and there was a scruffy little stub of a pencil.  It didn’t seem fitting to cast a vote that would help change the political landscape of a nation, with a tatty bit of lead.  To this day, I’m not certain that I wasn’t expecting quills or expensive fountain pens. 

In the PWV area (Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging) we had a choice of thirteen parties.  As brave as the National Party had been, I couldn’t vote for the architects of Apartheid.  I couldn’t vote for the ANC bunch of terrorists either, no matter how just their cause.  I didn’t think the KISS lot (Keep It Straight and Simple) was taking the whole thing seriously enough; and the Women’s Rights Peace Party was missing the point.  I voted for the Democratic Party.  Helen Suzman was a lone white protest voice in the wilderness of the Apartheid government for many years, so I voted for her party, which I felt had moral conviction.  As the vote was by proportional representation, I helped them to their seven seats.

I discovered a wonderful quote from Helen Suzman, via Wikipedia:

She was once accused by a minister of asking questions in parliament that embarrassed South Africa, to which she replied: “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers.”

Our tiny piece of history made, we took our exhausted child home, probably collecting a takeaway on the way.  Once he had eaten I put him straight to bed.  We followed soon after.  History is important but it’s the mundane that keeps us going.

Relatives living further out told us they hadn’t bothered to vote on the first day when they saw the queues; they left it to the next day and walked straight in and out.  It seemed most people wanted to vote on the first polling day.  I guess we were not the only people conscious of history on that glorious day.

55 Responses to “It Was Twenty Years Ago Today…”

  1. jmgoyder April 27, 2014 at 09:20 #

    A fascinating insight.


  2. Grannymar April 27, 2014 at 09:38 #

    Great story! When you think the efforts some people in other countries go to, in order to cast a vote, and here at home, some folk cannot be bothered to walk down the road, or arrange for a postal vote.


  3. April 27, 2014 at 10:02 #

    I remember your account, which impressed me greatly with your persistence and sense of history.


  4. granny1947 April 27, 2014 at 10:02 #

    So sad that our democracy has gone so wrong with all the corruption and greed.


    • judyt54 April 27, 2014 at 12:08 #

      granny, i recently got to see a letter from one of the signers of the constitution to the brother of one of the others on the second man’s death–and he said, in 1814, “Nicholas was was one of the few men in Washington that could be trusted to rise above all the corriuption that exists” (paraphrasical liberties here)…so its not new, its perspective, and yet we survive..


      • granny1947 April 27, 2014 at 17:08 #

        I don’t know Judy…the corruption here is just mind boggling it is so blatant.
        And it gets rewarded with promotion….sigh


    • The Laughing Housewife April 27, 2014 at 17:27 #

      Sad indeed, when we remember the great sense of hope and even triumph that accompanied the election.


  5. I used to be indecisive April 27, 2014 at 10:10 #

    What a fantastic piece of history to have been part of.


  6. colonialist April 27, 2014 at 10:20 #

    I remember the spirit of misplaced optimism well.


  7. sharechair April 27, 2014 at 10:55 #

    What a great story. Does your son have any recollection of the day?


  8. anotherday2paradise April 27, 2014 at 11:19 #

    It was a historic occasion, Till. Helen Sussman was a woman of great integrity, and Helen Zille is following in her footsteps. We had such great hope for our ‘Rainbow Nation’, but I’m afraid it’s been mostly downhill from there. 😦


  9. judyt54 April 27, 2014 at 12:04 #

    this one moved me, Tilly, as so many of your posts do; and sliding down the page, with the photo of Mandela at the bottom, just put me over the edge. beautifully done.
    I keep thinking about the right to vote. That in itself is a two sided animal, isnt it. Think of all the people who are transported to a chosen voting place and handed a ballot with one check box. Vote, or you are arrested, beaten, shot.
    So the right to vote is a choice, either way.
    And some elections are, like that one, the kind that leave you tingly afterwards.


    • The Laughing Housewife April 27, 2014 at 17:29 #

      You are right, Judy; and yet, EVERY election matters. Just ask the Germans in the twenties and thirties…


  10. misswhiplash April 27, 2014 at 12:29 #

    first of all I love the picture of you and hub at the top of the page. It is actually nicer than the one before and even though the years have slipped past, you don’t look any older , just happier…okay enough flattery for Maltesers for me now!

    It must have been a wonderful experience to be able to be there on the first day of voting. I can see the reason why you waited so long.
    Has the situation got any better? Are blacks and whites equal? I would like to think so but when I see the squalid settlements that are called housing I really do wonder if any progress has been made. It might not be slavery but it is not equality.

    What I always find strange in that Jesus is always depicted as being white but if He was born where He was supposed to have been born, His skin would definitely not be would be dark, maybe not black but certainly dark….yet the biggest hypocrites to racial prejudice are white people and the biggest chip on the shoulder belong to the darker races….so not a lot of progress!


    • The Laughing Housewife April 27, 2014 at 17:34 #

      I’m not qualified to comment on the situation now, not having lived there for 18 years, and not having contacts there any more.

      But I have always thought the same thing as you about Jesus. So often we forget that he was Jewish, and would have looked like everyone else in his time – not white, blonde, blue-eyed. And not in a pristine white gown, but scruffy, dirty, probably a bit smelly…like we all would be if we were homeless for three years.


      • misswhiplash April 27, 2014 at 21:16 #

        Desmond Tutu seems to agree with what I said and I read that after I had done the comment…fings ain,t what they used to be anywhere


  11. emmasouthlondon April 27, 2014 at 14:10 #

    A wonderful post – isn’t it strange, the little details that we remember – like the short stubby pencil!
    The right to vote is just one of so many things that we take for granted…
    I love Suzman’s quote – thank you for sharing it.
    Emma x.


  12. laurieanichols April 27, 2014 at 16:05 #

    I have my ballot!!!!!!!!! What a wonderful post Tilly 🙂 I felt as if I were there with you, the Hub and Tory boy. 🙂


  13. slpmartin April 27, 2014 at 17:29 #

    Thanks for sharing that bit of personal history…and as is most often the case…a marvelous write.


  14. letstalkaboutfamily April 27, 2014 at 19:12 #

    What a great memory to pass along in your family!


  15. Al April 28, 2014 at 01:29 #

    We’ve talk about this before. I still get a tingle when I’m standing at the polling station. However, that must have been special knowing it was a first. It put me in mind of the Iraqi people holding up their blue finger as a badge of honor that they had voted. I guess that comes under “the ends justifies the means” department, but no need to debate that…to me, you can’t say any country has “freedom” unless they have the right to a secret ballot.


  16. SchmidleysScribbling April 28, 2014 at 02:25 #

    Good for all of you. I know it was a hard fought win and I loved the way Nelson Mandela andBishop Tutu handled the change.


  17. Rorybore April 28, 2014 at 02:27 #

    You are a part of history! Amazing. What a feeling it must have been to be there, on that momentous occasion. I remember writing letters from my high school in the preceding years, as I was involved in the Amnesty International club. I suppose it’s not to think that my little high school group helped change history to some extent too: even if on quite a smaller scale.


  18. SchmidleysScribbling April 28, 2014 at 02:27 #

    Check out the cow photos I put up tonight. My granddaughter is an All American Cowgirl!


    • The Laughing Housewife April 28, 2014 at 07:14 #

      Will do!


    • The Laughing Housewife April 28, 2014 at 07:15 #

      PS If I didn’t know you, that comment would have gone straight to my spam folder. Bizarre! 😀


      • SchmidleysScribbling April 28, 2014 at 11:33 #

        Which one? I thought you were referring to the ‘change’ comment,but perhaps not. Of course the change I was referring to had to do with the transition from Aparteid,not the male menopause.

        If it was the cow comment, what can I say.? She came in first in a cattle show, or rather I suspect her cow did. At least I hope it was her cow. These days you can never tell.


  19. SchmidleysScribbling April 28, 2014 at 11:40 #

    Pps. I wish we had proportional representation here. I like Suzman too. Wasn’t she the news woman featured in the film starring Diane Lane and David Suchet and the little blonde actress who starred in a few films made over here like Last of the Mohicans?


  20. McGuffy Ann April 28, 2014 at 12:45 #

    This is a great post! Thank you for sharing firsthand an important moment in history.


  21. timethief April 29, 2014 at 01:03 #

    What a memorable day that one was. I’m so glad your shared this post here.


  22. Molly B and Me April 29, 2014 at 03:45 #

    Congratulations on your place in history and thanks for posting. How great that you turned a historical moment into a celebration of freedom.


  23. Musings April 29, 2014 at 07:34 #

    Since just returning from Southeast Asia (especially) Cambodia where we were told there’s so much corruption, we see how much we take the vote for granted. It’s embarrassing to know Hawaii has one of the worst voting records.

    This is such a wonderful post! By the way, I saw Maltesers in Thailand at the airport and it was going for $23 or something like that. And here I was going to try one. I’ll wait.


  24. benzeknees April 29, 2014 at 18:23 #

    What a great memory to have with you!


  25. Hattie April 30, 2014 at 06:20 #

    Having worked on elections and seen how complicated it is to set them up and all the things that can go wrong, I can only imagine the difficulties around that first election! You were lucky to be there on such a historic day.


  26. bluebee April 30, 2014 at 12:23 #

    And now there is this:

    😦 😦


  27. viveka May 5, 2014 at 20:17 #

    What an amazing event to be part of … I remember the day Africa was voting, seems a lot longer away than 1994.
    Beautiful post, Linda … we are voting this month for EU – to stay in or get out, even if it cost us a lot money, I think it will cost us more to be outside EU now. And so long as we can keep our own currency, Late this year is time for vote for the government and they are all the same.


  28. Perfecting Motherhood May 13, 2014 at 05:54 #

    This is such a great sliver of history to be part of and it will be a great story to tell your grandchildren one day.

    By the way, that voting ballot with 50 candidates is something so unreal here in the US, where you only have a choice between guy #1 and guy #2…


I welcome your comments but be warned: I'm menopausal and as likely to snarl as smile. Wine or Maltesers are an acceptable bribe; or a compliment about my youthful looks and cheery disposition will do in a pinch.

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