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More Opinion and Analysis

Voting isn't really about politics

2014-05-08 10:21
I must have voted at least 10 times in my life in elections, by-elections and referendums for a range of parties and individuals. It’s not a new experience, but it gets to me every single time. Even when I really think the chances of politicians bringing about real change is remote.

In the last day I have realised that voting isn’t really about politics. I have just reread that sentence, and did a bit of a double take, and then realised I mean it.

Yes, this is when political parties square up to re-divide their slice of the pie, and to find out how many members they will be able to send to Parliament, and who controls which province. That’s what puts the smile on their faces.

But what puts the smile on the voters’ faces?

I went to vote at the primary school round the corner from my home. You get the picture - asphalt quads, face brick walls and yellow curtains in the school hall. (What is it about short yellow curtains that make them indispensable to every single primary school I have ever been in?).

The queue

I waited until 16:00 when the queue was no longer snaking out the front door of the voting station, grabbed my ID and in I went. In the queue there were old Muslim grannies, a builder in his blue overall, an old white couple, a young Muslim family with two babies in tow and a pretty young black woman who had obviously interrupted her braiding session to come and vote. Half the braids were done and the other half of her head was still awaiting the ministrations of the hairdresser. But braiding is a long process and might not be finished before the voting stations closed. Voting first, braiding second.

It took about 10 minutes to get to the front of the queue, and I had time to observe those who were leaving the voting station, having just cast their vote. Every single one of them was beaming. And that’s when I realised that something else was going on here besides politics.

You belong

Elections make people feel heard and validated. There’s something about finding your name on the list and having your ID scanned that makes you feel as if you belong. For one day everyone is of equal importance (and that’s something in one of the most unequal societies in the world). This is one day you share an experience with 25 million other South Africans. The voting process itself brings about a certain solidarity, regardless of who you vote for.

This is the day that belongs to the 95% of ordinary South Africans who make up the very fabric of our society. They will never make the news, few people will ever know who they are. But most of them make a daily contribution to the communities in which they find themselves. Without them, everything would grind to a halt.

I have heard that on election day in 1994 it was the one day in the country’s history on which not a single serious crime was reported at any police station in South Africa. I want to believe that it is true - not only because criminals were also waiting all day in long queues to vote, but because elections bring out something positive and community-minded in just about everyone. Even Julius Malema was sedate and polite and uncharacteristically overawed as he escorted his granny into the polling station in Polokwane yesterday.

A raw edge

Desmond Tutu reminded everyone that many people died to give all South Africans the right to vote, which gives the occasion a certain raw edge in this region. A raw edge you probably wouldn’t find in an election in Finland or Canada.

I got to the front of the queue and was whisked through the admin process with great efficiency. I had my thumb marked, was given my ballot papers and headed for the cardboard booth.

And then it happened. For a second I felt overwhelmed by the solemnity of the occasion. I drew my crosses, and left. With a very large smile on my face.

I have, I am afraid, little faith in politics or career politicians. This is why I get so angry when they disappoint the millions of beaming voters. But for one day, allow me the illusion that voting can really change things. We all need it desperately.

I have been glued to the TV election results all night and am now off to go and see whether the details have come in from remote regions in the Northern Cape and Limpopo. From Askham to Alice to Diepsloot – for one day every single person makes up a strand of the fabric that binds us all together.

- Susan Erasmus is a freelance writer.

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