Quiet Election Day in South Africa

April 22, 2009

I confess. I am a political junkie. I have absolutely no stake in the outcome of the South African election. I gain or lose nothing personally in whatever the eventual outcome (except for a possible move in the exchange rate), but I have been drawn into many conversations with South Africans over the last several months about the election and find myself fascinated. I love democracy, and it has been great to find out how South Africans view the privilege of voting. It is especially interesting to talk with black South Africans who still remember their first chance to vote fifteen years ago.

It has been a remarkably quiet election day across South Africa. There have been isolated incidents of violence, some voting irregularties and political grandstanding from the parties, but nothing like the violence that had been seen in the past.

Analysts have been calling this the most closely watched and anticipated election since the first true democratic election in 1994. The main reason is that this year the outcome of the election is not entirely a forgone conclusion. The African National Congress has held an overwhelming majority in the country since 1994. In the past election they received nearly 70% of the vote. The constitution can be changed with a vote of over 66%, so there is a significant push by the dozens of competing parties to capture that elusive 33%. As of this writing, the few polls that have been conducted suggest that the ANC will probably receive somewhere between 60 – 66% which is a real reduction of their past performance, but nonetheless a significant majority. The ANC will remain that way for the forseeable future, or in the words of the soon to be president, Jacob Zuma, “until Jesus  Christ returns”. News of the ANC’s demise is, no doubt, exaggerated.

Whether Zuma is a prophet remains to be seen, but hearing and reading the stories of one of the world’s newest democracies celebrating another election is exciting. Long lines were recorded all over the nation and it is expected that up to 80% of the registered voters will have participated today.

I am reminded of a Peggy Noonan piece written in 2000 entitled, The Meaning of the Vote. It is somewhat dated in the details of the election itself (Bush/Gore before the Supreme Court settled it), but I love how she closes her essay. I think about this every time I go to vote myself. Democracy is an incredible blessing not to be taken for granted.

A final word for those who will vote, and who even look forward to it and, corny as it is, feel a spring in their step as they go to the polls.

The other night I was dining with another family and I turned to a mother and said, “I actually get choked up when I vote. Do you?” I said it because it’s true but also because kids were there and I wanted us to do a little spontaneous commercial for democracy.

And she said, “Oh yes,” and I was surprised. She told me she takes her kids to vote with her, so they’ll remember.

I do that too, I told her, I take my son. I let him press the lever with his finger over my finger.

When I vote I get kissing sickness, and have to stop myself from embarrassing my son. But I want to kiss the curtains of the voting machine, I want to put my lips to them quickly in gratitude. I would like to kiss the metal knobs and paper with the candidate’s names.

My heart beats quickly when I’m in the booth, and my hands tremble a little. I get choked up as I wait on line. I go and sign in at the big registration desk and I am so proud to write my name, it gives me satisfaction, and I make a joke with the ladies who hold the book, and I look at the people on line and smile and I notice a lot of people are kind of–there’s a heightened feeling.

I know I should be thinking things like, “Good men died so I could do this,” and “God bless the Founders,” and in a way I guess I do, but really I’m thinking, Thank you God that I’m so lucky I can vote, isn’t it wonderful this country has been voting for more than two centuries, aren’t we the luckiest people on earth that we have this gift. And we all do it together and we’re all equal and Bill Gates has a bigger boat and a bigger house and a bigger pool than the girl at the counter at the deli next door but his vote is no bigger and has no more weight.

She is his equal.

We are all equal. In the eyes of God, in the eyes of the law, and in the voting booth. It’s really wonderful. It leaves me choked up. Maybe it does you, too…

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One Response to “Quiet Election Day in South Africa”

  1. Jake Says:

    Elections are a wonderful thing. They fulfill the will of the people. It must be awesome living history in South Africa right now!

    Unfortunately, it’s pretty stinking what the people want in our country right now. Our President is doing exactly what we elected him to do – a little scary!!!!! 🙂

    We miss you guys. Hope things are well.


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