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