I voted twice in the states. Once by mail, when I was in college, and once in person when I was in Texas, for something more local. We hopped in the car, drove to a local school, and crossed some names (or filled in squares?! I don’t remember). It took 5 minutes and was over. They say that in South Africa, more than 75% of the population voted, and in the USA, that number dropped below 60% in the last election.
Maybe it’s because voting in the USA is old and boring. Here, it’s still a bit of a celebration.
It started the night before, an ecumenical prayer meeting with all the Hilton churches. Rather than praying “for our white standard of living to be protected” (as the leader said), “tonight we are going to pray for what’s on God’s heart. That our country will be just, will be a place of peace, of shalom, a place where the orphan and immigrant are cared for.” Hallelujah. (My cynical self didn’t see that one coming).
Being unable to vote myself, I volunteered to help pour free tea and coffee at our local voting station (which was our church). People had to stand in line for about 20 minutes until they were at the front and able to vote. There were old people, and young people (yes, “born frees” were voting, they’re not as cynical as the press makes them out to be!), the elderly were guided to the front of the line by IEC officials, so they didn’t have to wait. People chatted to each other. There were two policemen sitting in the parking lot, ready to help if there was any trouble. There wasn’t. Overall, the IEC reported that intimidation levels were down from the previous election. (Perhaps that’s another difference with the states. Here the IEC voting officials are trained in things like, ‘You’re here to help people vote, you’re not a peace keeper. If there’s any trouble, hit the deck or call the policemen’).
It was a public school holiday. There was a buzz of excitement in the air. Unlike the USA, there’s not 3 years of polling before the voting day, so you don’t really know the outcome until after you vote.
There’s not much that unites us all in this mish-mash country of race, culture and language. But voting day—that’s a day we all have in common.
The guy weighing my bananas at the grocery store usually says hello. Today when I greeted him, he continued our conversation, “Have you voted yet?” he asked. “No, not yet,” (I didn’t want to explain I couldn’t vote at all, actually). “Have you voted?” I asked. “Not yet, I am going after work. The voting station near my house will be open until 9pm,” he said excitedly.
It doesn’t matter if you’re old or young, if you’re the one buying the bananas or working a 10 hour shift at the grocery store. Everyone has to go line up and wait. Everyone gets a chance to make their cross on the long, colorful ballot paper (which includes the faces and logos of candidates, and not just their names, so that those who can’t read are still able to vote). Everyone gets the permanent black mark on their thumb. Everyone smiles in acknowledgement when shaking hands, or handing over groceries, or picking something up later in the day. The unspoken Ah. You have the mark, too. You voted.
I drove through Sweetwaters to drop off some boys from the iThemba running club after their race, and we drove past about 4 voting stations. Schools, churches, community halls. All with the blue and white “IEC VOTING STATION” signs tacked up outside, surrounded by a swath of campaign posters.
And while you can’t “campaign” at a voting station, you can wear whatever you want. There were loads of people in bright yellow ANC shirts, and orange NFP shirts. There was singing and dancing. I had to slow down to weave between the flood of people who were coming home from work and walking to the stations to vote. Sure, it wasn’t like the epic photos from 1994, where the lines of people stretched on for miles. But seeing people streaming towards the voting stations still makes your heart beat a little faster.
My friend Thulani phoned me about 8 that night, “Can you hear it?” he shouted over the noise of singing and vuvuzelas in the background. “I’ve just voted for the first time. Everyone here at the voting station is singing and dancing! I’ve made my mark!”
We’ve made our mark.
And tomorrow at 6pm, when the official announcement is made, whatever people say about the party that wins, whatever problems we still face in our country, whatever steps we still have to take until we have a more free and more equitable democracy— voting day is a reminder of how far we’ve come.
(I know it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Visit this website to learn about those who are advocating for more transparency in government.)