voter lineups in South Africa
voter lineups in South Africa

People in South Africa went to their voting stations today for the fourth time since the National Party of former President F.W. de Klerk released political prisoners like Nelson Mandela and unbanned anti-apartheid and revolutionary movements such as the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and the African National Congress (ANC). I missed those first elections (1994) for a truly dumb reason – to keep my job back home. I managed to be there, though, for the second elections (1998) roaming about the city of Johannesburg and then heading off to Durban, Port Shepstone and then north to wander about the Valley of a Thousand Hills in central KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province with SABC crews. I will never forget those days and weeks.

On one trip out to a Jo’burg suburb, our crew pulled into in a little market to talk to people about the upcoming elections. While the crew set up, I wandered off and discovered that we were in an area called Triomf (Triumph in English). It wasn’t all that far from where I was staying in my little apartment in Melville, but it was world’s away from what it once was – a place called Sophiatown.

Sophiatown had been a vibrant and lively township with lots of mothers and families, day labourers and construction workers, shebeens, jazz, and the gangs that made life very interesting. Sophiatown became legendary, a symbol of injustice in South Africa as much for what happened to it as for the generation that it spawned in both arts, music and politics. In the 1950s, to set an example that places like Sophiatown – filled with people who flaunted apartheid laws – would not be tolerated, the South African government bulldozed it into the ground. People and their families were thrown out onto the streets often overnight and with only what they could carry. The South African government renamed this once vibrant community Triomf and built a whole new suburb for whites only in its place.

(But bulldozers couldn’t destroy memories. The last time I was there last year, I walked to Sophiatown. They removed the name Triomf and put back the old name of Sophiatown. It may never regain the buzz it once had but I hope it at least tries.)

Shortly after, I managed to p*ss off one of the Canadian elections managers and found myself shipped out to the boonies. For me, it was exactly what I’d hope for. I wanted to get to KZN where I hoped to see some real South African politics. During the first elections four years before, KZN had been a battleground between the Inkatha Freedom Party, a mostly Zulu organization under Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and the ANC which had formed an alliance with many of the other movements, labour groups like COSATU (Congress of SA Trade Unions) and the SA Communist Party. The pre-election period in 1994 and for years after had been marked by murders and violent clashes at mass demonstrations between the two groups. Essentially, it was a continuation of the “hostel wars” by the IFP (supported by the National Party) to destabilize those first elections with a wave of bombings and killings.

However, as election day in 1998 approached, I noticed a distinct difference. The rallies in Durban, although large and loud, weren’t all that exciting. There had been four years since those first elections in 1994, during which the country took giant steps back from the brink of civil war.  The 1998 elections were very different. The IFP was still belligerent but Buthelezi had been a Cabinet minister in the ANC coalition government. Talk of a separatist Zulu homeland had dissipated significantly, if it had not completely disappeared. This was the big story, the main story, of the elections this time.  It was reflected by what we found even in the smaller urban areas, such as Port Shepstone, on the coast south of Durban. It was certainly what we found in that area around Uqutu, Dundee and elsewhere in central and northern KZN.

On voting day itself, I woke up at 04:00 so I could leave Durban early. I needed to be in Dundee, about 250 kms north of Pietermaritzberg by the time the polls opened. The only map I had came with the rented car.  It showed a small line heading north of Pietermaritzberg through hill country near Rorke’s Drift and on to Dundee. I didn’t know it at the time, as I pulled off the main highway and headed up that small line, but the map was wrong.

The road kept shrinking. At first, it was a small but decent country road that would fit two-way traffic. As the road continued, it became barely wide enough for two cars to pass. Further on, I had to pull over to let a truck pass. Place names like Keate’s Drift and Tugela Ferry sounded familiar, from something I’d read from the Boer War. As daybreak neared, I was continue north into these hills on a road that seemed to be turning into a goat trail. Soon I was weaving around large rocks that had fallen from the hillsides above. A thick, heavy fog had me straining to see ahead. I was moving about as quickly as a bicycle. I’d long before given up trying to follow the map.

Then something happened. I remember it as clearly as a post card. A face appeared out of the fog. It was painted red or ochre on one side only. A heavy blanket was draped over the man’s shoulders. My car inched along in the fog. I stared at the man’s face, and followed it nearly turning right around in my seat. He had this amazing face. Strong. Proud. He vanished into the fog behind. After a bit I wondered if I had really seen him at all.

Then another man, similarly painted and dressed, appeared along the side of the road, heading in the same direction as that first man. The sun was still only a hint over the hilltops but my watch told me it was nearly 07:00. That’s when I had to slow down even more because there were suddenly lots of men just like the first two emerging from the fog in front of me, along with women and even children, some rubbing the sleep from their eyes, all dressed for the cold morning air. Many stared back at this confused foreigner meandering in a car through their villages.

As the sun burned off the fog, I began to see small buildings off to the side of the road; schools, stores, post office buildings and other government offices. I could see that these were voting stations. I could also see the long lineups of people waiting to vote. This is what I had missed the first time, when I had to leave South Africa and miss the ’94 elections. This remarkable sight of hundreds of people lining up in long queues, possibly for hours, for a chance to fill out out a ballot maybe for the first time in their lives. This is what I had come all of the way from Canada to see.

I pressed on. The fog lifted slowly. The road improved. I found myself lost but kept driving north because I knew that I would eventually find a small town or township. I passed long-ago battlefields from the Boer War, from the Zulu wars, strangely familiar names. I emerged into the highveldt almost exactly where I should have been, at exactly the time I had planned.

I spent the rest of that day with two remarkable people, freelancers that I nicknamed Batman and Robin. We raced from one voting area to another across northern KZN, talking to people, doing interviews, getting pictures of long long lineups. The last elections, Batman said, there had been bodies floating down one of the rivers we had just crossed. They had been killed in clashes between IFP and ANC supporters. This time, on voting day 1998, there wasn’t a single killing in the whole country. No one had been hurt, except apparently for a policeman near Cape Town whose pistol went off, shooting himself in the foot. These had been the most peaceful, joyous, wonderful elections ever.

That’s my South African election story. And I’m sticking to it.