Democracy and other tales

2014-05-08 00:00

AN orderly Durban voting queue broke up into hugs when one of the city’s “living legends” was spotted yesterday.

IEC volunteer Anele Sizwe pointed to the woman in the red blouse and declared, “That’s Gcina Mhlophe — I’m star struck!”

And voter Shanti Soljalal nudged her husband and said, “Harry, she’s from the TV — the storyteller.”

Fresh from narrating the Anthems of Democracy concerts in Joburg with stars like Joan Armatrading and Sipho Hotstix Mabuse last month, Mhlophe spent her election morning sharing stories of South Africa’s 20 years of freedom at the Glenardle Junior Primary polling station on the Bluff.

The 55-year-old suggests that the coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death helped inform the youth about this election. “It’s amazing that so many of our youth didn’t even know about our struggle, but they got an unexpected education with Madiba’s passing. I think all the documentaries and discussion really made a difference.”

A literacy campaigner, she says, “If you cannot read and inform yourself, you cannot be fully free.”

But the poet’s stories of freedom begin before her “short walk to democracy”, in the elaborate “peace park” at her home nearby, where she notes, “When I lived in Alexandra township, the police would actually destroy our peace parks, even firing shots at the sculptures.”

Having returned to Durban in 2001 after years of international travel, Mhlophe lives with her daughter Khwezi — “who is frustrated that she turns 18 only in July” — and her niece and grandniece.

Her husband, Karl Becker, is currently in Germany.

“This used to be an AWB stronghold, when I moved here people said, ‘You’re mad! A family coming here with a coloured baby, a Zulu mom and a German dad. I said, I’ll make it my stronghold. Now it is quite diverse.”

Her Marine Drive neighbourhood has since turned into an elite address, with R4 million houses popping up on her street. Yesterday, Mhlophe considered pretending she’d mis-tossed a Frisbee into one of the new mansions’ yards as an excuse to get a peek inside.

The road sign on her street outside, which has red tape crossing out the words “Gray Park”, sparks another story, “The name was recently changed to Hoosen Haffejee, and I said to an Indian neighbour who is this, and she said, ‘You don’t know?’ I learnt that he was a comrade and a freedom fighter who was beaten to death by apartheid police in this very street.”

As we turn into Goodliffe Street, that name triggers another thought, “That’s what this is all about, I suppose,” she chuckles. “We should be grateful that we live in a generally peaceful country; a place which has political tolerance by and large. Some people say out loud what party they’re voting for, without fear, and that’s good. My greatest embarrassment is that children are not safe in my country — that abuse and violence toward them is happening everywhere.”

As we get to the Bluff lighthouse, her niece, Nontokozo Cobokana, pats her jeans pockets, cries out and announces she’s forgotten her ID book.

Mhlophe gaily greets every neighbour who passes, as they return from the school.

Her thoughts turn to local issues as we turn into Hillhead Road, where she points to blazing street lights overhead, “Why are the lights on in the day time? And of course at night they switch off. And what about the drive on the N2 from the airport? The minister of Transport must come to see me ● no fancy car, no bodyguards, no wee wee wee — and travel with me from uShaka Airport to Durban. He will see we are travelling in total darkness. It is not safe, my dread is to break down there with no juice in my cellphone.”

We get slightly lost, and she finds that her niece has beaten her to the polling station.

Mhlophe poses for pictures with a policeman and joins a queue of 30.

The woman in front of her in line, Sam Boock (24(, a graphic artist, turns to say, “I’m privileged — you came and spoke at my school.”

Mhlophe says, “My dear, with a name like Boock, you have to join to my campaign for literacy.”

Behind her, Soljalal tells the poet her own story of the 1994 election, “We moved into our house on that very day. Everything started anew.”

Mhlophe remembers waiting in line for eight hours at a synagogue in Joburg’s Berea, listening to news on a portable Grundig radio. “People brought a pail of tea, and a carton of milk already mixed with sugar. If you didn’t take sugar it was your problem. It was wonderful, people of all races chatting.”

Mhlophe is concerned about the neglect and “lack of respect for the elderly” in South Africa, and includes the “scorn” shown by some leaders toward Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. She is haunted by stories of elderly people in the UK who “have to put coins into heaters to warm themselves, and end up dying alone”.

She high-fives another voter who suggests all prisoners be made to move into retirement homes, while all single elderly are offered the “square meals and planned activities” of prison.

One voter, Laura Saayman, emerges from the polling station to announce, “Make sure your ballot is stamped, mine wasn’t stamped.”

Mhlophe is stopped three times for hugs and greetings as she tries to leave. Those who don’t recognise her ask who she is, and perfect strangers in the queue turn to tell them the Mhlophe stories of democracy they remember best.

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