Voting away from home

2009-04-20 00:00

LAST week’s news of South Africans voting abroad reminded me of the part I played in probably the first election where voting took place outside the country.

It was in July 1943 when several dozen other civil servants and I in Pretoria were seconded to the Department of the Interior, which had suddenly realised it had taken on more than it could chew. We all had to drop what we were doing and go to the Union Buildings in order to count votes. There were sackfuls of them, cast by members of the Defence Force, stationed either away from their homes in South Africa or serving out of the country, mainly in North Africa.

As names of candidates could not be given to the voters, they voted for the party of their choice and put the ballot paper into an envelope, which was then put into another envelope. The outer one contained the names and details of the voter, including his or her constituency. We worked in groups of six to eight people and first had to sort the envelopes into constituencies. When that was done, we took each constituency in turn and checked the name of the voter against the voters’ roll. When we had ensured that the voters were registered, the outer envelopes were opened and discarded, leaving the inner one with no indication as to who had put the ballot paper in it. Only then could the actual counting begin.

Representatives of the political parties were allowed to observe the counting process but no one else was allowed in the halls where we were working. The only one who came and watched was Mr F. C. Erasmus, who became Minister of Defence when the Nationalists were returned to power five years later. He did not like what he saw, so got an interdict to stop the counting. We had a day’s holiday, while the powers that be decided how we should proceed. Next morning Mr Owen, the chief electoral officer, started telling us how to continue when Erasmus interrupted to say that was not what the judge had said. Owen sent us all home again for another day while this was being sorted out.

The whole process took a few weeks. We started at 8 am, broke for lunch from 1 pm until 2 pm, and carried on until 6 pm. We went home for supper and at 7 pm taxis picked us up from our homes and brought us back to work until 9 pm. While we were out of the building the doors were sealed with red tape and sealing wax. The seals were broken only when we were all present.

As it was winter, temperatures were low so we were provided with bar heaters. One evening when we came back after supper and gathered outside the door, there was a smell of burning coming from inside. When the door was opened it was found that a heater had been left burning against the leg of a wooden table. This leg was smouldering and was charred most of the way through, but had not caught fire. Imagine if it had and we had burnt, not only all the ballot papers, but the Union Buildings themselves.

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