18 January 2009

A new President

Peace by Natashalatrasha
You wouldn't know it this week -  but the USA is not actually the first country to get elect a black president after a long history of oppression and white rule.

South African apartheid may have outlasted American segregation  - by just 20 years - but when it eventually fell in 1990 the impact was more immediate and, in 1994, to world-wide excitement and joy, South Africans elected a charismatic black man promising renewal, change and hope as their first black President.

And I was there.

We were living the plush Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg. We had two (very, very) small children and in the January of that year, with the absurd self-confidence of youth, we had set out with our young family for a South Africa that the Sunday Times - and indeed many of our friends -  assured us by April would be an anarchic bloodbath.

During the ensuing months it would be fair to say that we experienced some trepidation but in the event our election day ended not in riots but an impromptu evening picnic on the streets. Well, on the finely-manicured suburban roadside, owners, maids and gardeners all together drinking champagne, clapping, laughing and talking into the late autumn evening.

There was no blogging in 1994, and instead I wrote monthly letters home.  Here's what I wrote in April 1994.

Letter from Jonnesburg - Election Special
The election campaign formally started in the middle of March with the Absolutely-last-and-final-This-time-we-really-mean-it-No-really-just-try-us date for the registration of political parties.
I rose early the following morning to watch on  live television the draw to determine which party would appear at the top of the ballot paper - with 21 parties standing, an 18 inch ballot paper, and maybe 25% of the population illiterate or semi-literate this was a big issue.
The agreed procedure was a random draw for first place,  and  thereafter alphabetical order.
Like so much else in the election, the event was a circus: instead of drawing a party at random, they drew a letter.  So seven of the eight parties whose names begin with 'A' had no chance of being at the top, but with no parties at all beginning with G,H,I,J or K, the Luso South Africa Party had six chances of winning.

At the moment of the draw the ANC observer complained that the papers weren't shuffled properly; the hapless Mr Justice Kriegler had to insert his arm into the slot and stir them about a bit. 
Eventually the draw was made:  P. 

Then the International Election Commission (IEC) officials looked even more foolish as they stood, gaping, behind their table wondering 'who could that be then?'  Eventually the Pan African Congress observer lifted his hand and while the other parties were congratulating him on his achievement a quiet but distinct chorus of 'Of course! PAC! Obviously! Huh! How stupid of us
' could be heard.
Apart from the PAC, also looking smug at this point were the Keep it Straight and Simple (KISS) party, who were second on the list (How's that? They had  included their 'The' on the registration papers). Also smug were the National Party who had drawn what was generally reckoned to be the second-best slot  - right at the bottom. It was to be some weeks later, after distributing 4,000 'To be tops, vote at the bottom' posters, that they would be so unluckily stickered out of position by the re-entering IFP 1
In the following week the ballot papers were 'finalised':  Not before the IFP withdrew. The AMC (an Inkatha spoiler party created specifically to confuse the voters) were forced to become the AMCP (African Moderates Congress Party) but were allowed to keep their ANC-like black, green and gold logo. The Soccer Party were told that there wasn't room on the ballot paper mugshot to include both a soccer ball and their leader's face and no, they couldn't drop the face. Inconsistently, the Women's Rights Peace Party were permitted their picture of both of the two joint leaders (presumably standing extremely closely together).
As the campaign got underway, the IEC voter education programme started in earnest. At first I was contemptuous: what could be simpler than making a cross? But I soon learned: polls in the Cape suggested that the majority of voters thought the second ballot paper was for indicating their second choice (it was for their regional assembly); it seemed that many people were confused by the negative implications of a cross (as opposed to a tick). It emerged that farmers in the Free State were telling their farm-workers they must sign their ballot paper (which would invalidate it) and I listened to radio phone-ins with questions like 'Can I carry my children into the polling station?' (yes) 'What if I can't read' (officials will help you) and 'What if I make a mistake?' (ask for another paper) as well as more worrying questions such as 'Can I vote for the same party on both ballot papers?' (yes) and 'Can I vote if I am unemployed / not a landowner / live in an illegal squatter camp / have a criminal record / have only a Bophuthatswana ID?' (yes in all cases).
If the organisation has been poor, however, the campaigning has been good. Some of the slogans have been memorable including (in strict ballot paper order): the PAC's sinister: 'One settler: one bullet'; the ANC's romantic: 'The time is now!'; the Democratic Party's clever: 'If the Right get in there'll be nothing left; If the Left get in there'll be nothing right'; the Soccer Party's punning 'We're the only party FIT to govern'; the National Party's cutting: 'The ANC have yet to run a township successfully. Why trust them with a country?'; and, in a full page advert on the day that they were removed from the ballot paper, the IFP's portentous 'Vote Inkatha: When the time comes' (followed up four weeks later, of course, with a predictable: 'Vote Inkatha: The time has come!')
Other slogans have not been so successful. Following the ANC's 'Jobs! Peace! Freedom!' and the Nat's 'Vote for Peace! Vote for Jobs!' the Democratic Party (DP')s 'Freedom! Federalism! Free Enterprise!' hardly seemed likely to capture the imagination of the nation. The outspoken DP also made few friends with 'No killers, kidnappers, torturers or corrupt politicians' (a reference to the various candidates on the National Party and the ANC lists who have been convicted of these crimes).
The unambitiously named Minority Front didn't have any slogan at all.
We entered into the political process enthusiastically. I took my parents to a ANC vs. DP debate in Sandton Town Hall. At first I was nervous as this was only ten days after the Johannesburg massacre 2 and the toyi-toying ANC supporters were initially even more frightening than our kiwi friend's haka at his wedding last summer. However the debate was fun and was conducted in an excellent spirit of mutual respect and rivalry.
I was impressed. When did candidates last agree to debate with each other in a British general election? The occasion also yielded our best South African souvenirs: a Nelson Mandela for President poster, andthe local paper carried a picture of the debate with my mother just discernible amidst a sea of black faces in the ANC side of the hall.
But while the campaign was inventive, the rumours were more so. Did you know that in the Transkei the National Party gave out porridge laced with invisible ink so that the voters would get it on their hands and be prevented from voting? Did you know that the ANC bussed 600,000 electors into the Western Cape (a marginal region). That the word in the townships is that come April the 28th the Northern suburbs will burn? That every single flight out of South Africa in April and May is booked up? That shops are deliberately encouraging panic buying to reduce their stocks before the looting? That the electricity workers are buying candles? That British Airways have made a plan to evacuate all British passport holders if trouble should flair up? That the AWB have purchased 25 Army-surplus armoured personnel carriers? That the ANC have published plans to confiscate all second homes? That thousands of Zulus stayed away from the election because the voting stations were square, which means that the tokoloshes can hide in the corners?
Which of the above do you believe? I can't be sure, but I think that only one is true, however all of them have had a long life and a big impact in the various communities: The IEC had to officially investigate the porridge complaint; If we panic-bought once we panic-bought five times with no discernible effect on the stock-levels. The story about the armoured personnel carriers, however, was reported in Business Day (equivalent of the Financial Times) so I actually tend to give it some credence. Did you believe in the BA evacuation plan? So did I at first. But try dividing 1.5 million passport holders by the number of passengers on a jumbo jet - it's about nine flights a day, seven days a week for a whole year.
When it finally arrived the election was extraordinary. On the 26 April, the day before polling, I sat in Village Walk mall having lunch on a balcony overlooking the street.
There were about 20 of us gathered to celebrate the passing of the old South Africa and the ushering in of the new. In some ways it was a typical office party: pizzas, beers, a whip round at the end that was 50 Rands short of the bill. In other ways.....well even I had a lump in my throat as they all sang Die Stem, the old national anthem, followed by Nkosi Sikelel' i Afrika, the new one. (Fortunately I wasn't so overcome as to attempt God Save the Queen, despite much encouragement). We remembered the old South Africa, perhaps tastelessly, with Irish Coffee - a large amount of black with a thin layer of white sitting uncomfortably on the top. We celebrated the new South Africa by stirring vigorously.
You will have seen the queues, read about the logistical chaos and heard all the people on the TV. What, perhaps, you couldn't see was the extraordinary sense of peace and reconciliation. People were patient and smiling. There were no drive-by shootings, there were no riots, there wasn't even any queue jumping. (Some friends were even able to leave the queue and go back home to get more beers). All over South Africa whites and blacks, rich and poor, ANC and Inkatha all stood peacefully shoulder to shoulder for hours in the hot sun, simply to vote.
It can't last, but: Oh, what a good beginning.

1  IFP  - The participation of Chief Buthelezi's Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party was generally considered crucial to the success and credibility of the election. Buthelezi realised that and with an acute sense of brinkmanship entered the election, withdrew and then eventually re-entered. By the tame they camme back in, the ballot papers had been printed and millions of stickers were printed, and had to be manually affixed to ballot papers, one by one. In some marginal areas the stickers somehow never arrived.

2. The Johannesburg  Massacre. On March 28th ANC Security Guards in the Shell Centre in Joburg opened fire on Zulu demonstrators in the street below, killing 19 of them. A long time later emerged that Nelson Mandela himself had authorised the guards to open fire (something you don't hear much about now that he is a Saint)


Anonymous said...

Your last comment was very percipient - and it couldn't last and I'm not sure if SA is now much further forward than its good beginning. Hope springs eternal, but I'm lesshopeful for SA than we all were in those heady days when Mandela was released.
I hope (I'm not confident) that Obama will deliver better, and is made of sterner stuff. Everything and everyone is on his side now. It's for him to lose. How he carries himself in the next 6 months will,for me, determine whether he is a one term failure or a two term success. I'm hoping for the latter. I wish I was confident.

outside-jane said...

I remember visiting you later that year and it felt like the country was still on a high. I felt very lucky to be there. Poor South Africa - the ANC didn't deliver - I think Mandela tried - but then perhaps he promised the impossible? Perhaps Obama has too...