It’s Election Day in South Africa, and Life Still Goes On

It’s August 3rd, 2016 and the day that South African voters turn out for municipal elections. We live in Bitou Municipality in the Western Cape. For the past 2 ½ weeks, cars draped in party colors have honked noisily on city streets in defiance of noise ordinances, hopeful candidates and speakers have made pilgrimages into townships armed with goodies such as t-shirts and handkerchiefs embossed with party emblems and volunteers have gone around town snatching down their opponents posters on street lamps and fixed poles, replacing them with the printed smiling face of the candidate with whom their loyalty lies. It is, in essence, a typical election atmosphere.

People are rarely excited about municipal elections, but South Africa is very different. When was the last time you went out to vote for city government? In America, voter turn out for local government hovers around 22-27% and is expected to plummet according to governing.com. Despite plummeting confidence in national leadership, the South African voter takes his/her local election very seriously, it would seem. The most curious and unpredictable voters are Black voters. The ANC believes that they can take this voting bloc for granted – and they can, but only to a point. As one local confessed to me, “I vote DA for local elections and ANC for national.” She said most Black people in this area do.

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These voters are no fools. They know who butters their bread and on which side it is buttered.  They know that it is DA (Democratic Alliance) stalwarts that provide the municipality with jobs, and the ANC that only comes around to deliver promises. Still, given this countries morbid history with apartheid, the idea of electing a white president of a “white party” is one that inspires fear and discomfort in a lot of people.

Elections are very serious business in South Africa. Life in general is very serious business.

Today, our kids have the day off because their school doubles as a polling station. As I type, they are upstairs crafting or preparing to watch TV or perhaps playing on the iPad that they jostle each other for possession over almost every waking hour of the day. We sat around having breakfast, gazing at the torrential downpour that has been raging since the small hours of the morning. It is still battering our glass doors and windows, threatening to uproot the tender shoots in our backyard. What better day to not have to venture out into the cold, wind and rain? Sure, it’s a day off from school, but it’s still business as usual…which in our house tends to be noisy, but pleasant nonetheless. Today, I got a sober reminder that humdrum and steady beat of life in the middle class in not one to take for granted; and that though voting day may be a holiday, there are no vacations from real life.

Our housekeeper called early in the morning to tell us that she would either be coming in or she wouldn’t. I couldn’t tell. She was speaking so fast and mixing her speech with Afrikaans that I gave the phone to Marshall to try to decipher what she was trying to convey.

“Something about her son and 12 o’clock…”

20 minutes later, she showed up at our door with reddened eyes and making flighty moves in our darkened corridor. Without warning, she broke down and burst into tears.

What I had missed over the phone was that her son had suffered from another mental break, one caused by his brief indulgence with drugs a few years ago. “Tik” – or meth – had swept through their township and had taken a devastating toll on all the residents from the school aged to the elderly alike. It seemed like every one was either selling or using tik, from pastors who traded it in their congregations to grocers who laced their candy to get kids hooked to school teachers and administrators getting high off the stuff. Our housekeeper’s son, now 21, was just one of that unfortunate number.

She wept until her body shook, explaining that the government funded drug treatment center was coming to collect their son in a police van after noon today. She wanted to work for the day’s wages but be home in time to be there to accompany him. Her husband is formerly employed and therefore had the day off, but didn’t want to be the one to go with their boy to the hospital.

“He is afraid he will start fighting with the people if he goes.”

All we could do is listen and nod sympathetically, promise to pray and hug her as she explained her pain. Last year was a tough one for her. She’d lost one family member after another, and this hospital was notorious for discharging patients in a state of rigor mortis.

“They say they want to keep him for 2 weeks, but I know they’re going to keep him longer.”

I lied and said I was sure that they wouldn’t. But what do I know? I have only been a resident of this country for 2 months. My assurances mean nothing to a grieving mother. Naturally, we told her that she must take the day off – or as many days as she needed – with pay.

“But what about the dishes and laundry?” she asked sincerely.

My God. What kind of attitude compels one to worry about my crusty dinner dishes when your son in undergoing a mental crisis? Bless this woman!

“We’ve got it. Just GO.”

She looked at us skeptically, but drove off with her husband to face what they must back at home nevertheless.

I woke up to a storm, wondering if the tempest would affect voter turn out across the municipality. Maybe it will, and perhaps zealous voters will don their gumboots and queue in the sludge to make their voices heard. But for many other citizens like our housekeeper, ones for whom the system has disappointed and failed to protect so utterly, there will be no vote today. Taking the day to prop up a government puppet is probably the last thing on her mind on a day like today.

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