Where Votes Matter

As the United States is about to enter into another national election, I thought I would share something about my experiences in South Africa. It’s hard to believe that 12 years have passed since South Africa held it’s first democratic election. Many of us thought this would never happen in our lifetime. Serving as an international observer in those elections in 1994 was almost a surreal experience.

So many memories are invoked as I think about it all. Involvement in the anti-apartheid movement in years prior to the election gave resonance to this experience. One of our mentors in the movement in Atlanta, and in the U.S. generally, was Tandi Gcabashe who was exiled in the United States for decades. She was the daughter of the great Chief Albert Luthuli who was head of the African National Congress (ANC), the first African Nobel Peace Prize winner, in 1961, for his part in the anti-Apartheid struggle, and who was killed mysteriously in 1967 in Natal, South Africa.

I remember how, in the 1980’s, Tandi would challenge us relentlessly to act and to organize! Once when we were planning one of our many demonstrations, it was raining and miserable. I told Tandi I didn’t think folks would be coming out for the event so perhaps it should be cancelled. She reprimanded me by saying, “Heather, South Africans continue to be oppressed whether it rains or shines. The least we can do is demonstrate in bad weather.” Indeed! We demonstrated!

I recall when Tandi wanted to go back to South Africa in the late 1980’s to visit her ailing mother and that she couldn’t obtain a visa from the South African government. Finally, after a white South African came to her aide, she received a visa from the South African consulate in Houston, Texas. It was a long time coming. Later, Tandi told me she saw the files of her activities in the United States that were in the South African consulate. “They were huge,” she said. “They included even speeches I had written but never given.” Everyone knew the South African Bureau of State Security (BOSS) was everywhere. Its violence was renowned, from letter bombings to harassment and other oppressive chilling activities all over the world. This was clearly a concrete demonstration of its thorough work.

I recall when Neo Mnumzana, head of the ANC observer mission at the United Nations, spoke at an event in Atlanta in which South African and non-South African white panelists told him what they thought should be the goals of the freedom movement. I listened in amazement and disbelief at it all as they challenged his opinions. Neo told me later that whites, “Never want us to be truly free or make our own decisions.” Regarding Black Americans, Neo also told me that many of them think they are free because they have cars, live in suburbs and have the appearance of independence. But, he said, “No matter how much you turn the slave cabin into a palace, or plait the chains of slavery with gold, you will never be free if you don’t have the right of self-determination.”

Many of my ANC friends had expected that if the South African apartheid government fell, the U.S. would engage in a “contra-like” invasion similar to Ronald Reagan’s tragic contra war against the Nicaraguan revolution. Some also told me that if a change is to take place, it had best happen while the Democrats are in power. In fact, under George Bush I in the late 1980’s, there were questionable rehabilitation activities in airbases in Zaire, which some thought might be in preparation for a U.S. invasion. The U.S. government and the right-wing, with the likes of Reverend Pat Robertson, had, after-all, been supportive of the anti-freedom efforts in southern Africa for years. Examples are abundant of course, but Angola is a striking and painful one. The U.S. had supported and supplied thousands of land mines (left over from the Vietnam War) to forces in Angola opposed to the revolutionary government that had wrenched itself from Portuguese colonial rule in 1975. These mines still plague the Angolan people. Angola used to be the breadbasket of southern Africa. Now, when farmers go into the fields, there is still a threat of being blown to bits or losing limbs from land mines. Angola has held the record for having the largest number of amputees per capita in the world.

In Atlanta, for a while, living in my house was David Ndaba, his wife Thabi and one year old son Suku. David, as a young South African student in Soweto, had participated in the 1976 Soweto Student Uprising that resulted in the tragic harassment and death of students by the South African police. The students were protesting the apartheid government’s plans to teach only in Afrikaans – the language of the oppressor. A brilliant math student, David was forced to leave South Africa and his plans for a medical degree. Finally, after spending time at the ANC Observer Mission at the United Nations, he was accepted into the Morehouse Medical School in the 1980’s. He ultimately became the personal physician of Mandela’s successor, the current South African President Thabo Mbeki.

And so here it was, in 1994, with Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House, that many of us ventured to observe the election of ANC leader Nelson Mandela as he became the president of a new democratic South Africa. Many from the U.S. chose not to come to South Africa because there had been violence prior to the election and more was thought to be in the offing.

I was there with an Atlanta group of activists under the auspices of the U.S. based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. We first gathered in Johannesburg before we went to our various locations to observe. While there I asked my ANC friends if I could meet the person in the ANC most involved with land issues. They promptly introduced me to Derrick Hanekom who, that very day, had been appointed by Mandela to serve as his Minister of Land Affairs. With Hanekom and others, I learned about the land movement in South Africa, how challenging it had been (and continues to be, of course) and about the imprisonment of almost all these folks, including Hanekom, as they fought for land reform and freedom during the apartheid years.

I recall how, in Johannesburg, a representative of the U.S. Embassy tried to warn us that some of us might not live through the South African elections. He was booed from the stage and out of the room. One observer stood to tell him “We have been working for this auspicious election for most of our adult lives in America and in our support of the South African freedom struggle. We will not allow you to destroy this moment for us!” The effort could be dangerous, however, and most of us knew that.

That same evening, the representative from the Lawyers Committee told us, tongue in cheek, that “We know we have observers here from Chicago. We doubt, however, how Chicago voters can contribute to a fair and free election in South Africa!” Everyone in the room burst into laughter, especially the Chicago group including, the course, the renowned organizer and anti-apartheid activist Prexy Nesbitt–everyone knew that Chicagoans have been famous for voting early and often.

Prexy tells me that at the orientation that evening when the US Embassy representative got booed off the stage, “the late and wonderful African American lawyer, Haywood Burns, walked up to me upon learning that I was going to be observing in violence-ridden Natal Province,embraced me and said, ‘Prexy, I’ve known you too many years. Don’t let your crazy-ass self get hurt over that in Buthelezi territory!!’ How ironic and sad that that same wonderful man would a few years later be killed in a Cape Town traffic accident while doing legal solidarity work in the country!Like so many other internationals he left a great legacy for not only South Africans but for all the world to grow upon.” (Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi was the head of the Inkatha Freedom Party in opposition to the Mandela and the African National Congress.)

The organizing prior to the election was impressive. There were people of all races working together to ensure a successful and inclusive election. We in the United States could learn considerably from the South Africans.

As it was recognized that many South Africans could neither read nor write, the paper ballot lended itself to an inclusive process. One line was devoted to each party. On the line there was the name of the party (i.e. African National Congress), the logo of the party, the initial of the party (ANC) and the photo of the leader of the party (Mandela). Voters selected the political party of their choice by placing a mark on the line of the party they wanted.

I went with some in my group to observe the election in Cape Town. When we arrived the city was rather a ghost town. Many white South Africans had left as they feared the possible eruption of violence and tourists were non-existent. From my hotel I could see Robben Island where Mandela had been imprisoned. We went to political rallies a few days before the election that included the Democratic Party, the ANC, the Pan African Congress Party and the National Party of the incumbent president F. W. DeKlerk.

While taking a break from the rallies and having tea in a café, we heard sirens and looked up to see DeKlerk walking down the street. Suddenly there was a throng of defiant and jubilant ANC supporters following him while shouting chants and dancing the famous and invigorating “toi toi”. They shouted “One Mandela–One president”. I found myself caught in the throng and took countless pictures, while holding up my tape recorder.

On April 26 the first voters I observed were in Polsmoor Prison where Mandela had once been imprisoned before he was moved to Robben Island. We were shown his cell. We observed prisoners voting in the minimum, medium, and maximum-security areas of the prison. It was one of my most memorable experiences. After one maximum-security prisoner voted he lifted his arms and shouted “Yes”. Many of us wondered what we in the United States do to help prisoners to vote.

The ANC had wanted all prisoners to vote. The day before the election, however, the National Party government forced a compromise that all prisoners could vote, except those accused of murder. The prisoners revolted because of this ruling and, as we drove to the prison, hanging from many of the windows were burned mattresses as a profound symbol of discontent.

All over Cape Town there were huge long lines of voters. Many stood in the heat for hours. People were scurrying around to help the elders and bring them to the front of the line. Everyone seemed anxious to vote. There was electricity and excitement in the air. I met whites who were voting for the first time as well–some had refused to vote during the apartheid era.

In one “colored” area of Cape Town we encountered potential violence between two rival groups of ANC and Democratic Party supporters. (In South Africa there was a tiered hierarchy of whites, colored and blacks with rights being accorded based on color. Blacks were given the least rights of all, in their own country no less!). As the tension rose with yelling and screaming from both sides of the street, I found myself along with others falling on the ground for protection. Two South African anti-personnel carriers suddenly appeared. The tension was dispelled. As in the United States, the hierarchy of status based on color is almost always divisive, with the classic divide and rule scenario as a result.

We went to a hospital where organizers were assisting patients to vote. It was impressive. If patients could not walk to the voting booth, the booth was brought to their room. I talked to one young white organizer who was helping black patients to vote. He said, “We will do everything we can to help people vote.”

After the election, we observed the counting of the vote. It was perhaps one of the most explicit examples of successful electoral democracy at work. The ballot boxes were brought in trucks to the City Hall in Cape Town. As the ballot boxes were taken off the truck we were there. Each box was sealed. We recorded the province the box came from, the Box number and the seal number. For example, in my notebook the first box I recorded was from Station AO512, the Box Number was 049053, and the Seal Number was 260991. I recorded 63 boxes altogether.

Then came the counting. The hall was filled with tables. At each table there were representatives of the various parties as the ballots were counted. When each ballot was taken from the box, the voter’s choice was verbally announced and then it was written in the tally sheets. If there was a dispute about what the voter intended, all parties at the table made the determination on the spot about what to do with the ballot. With numerous witnesses, that included representatives of various parties, there appeared to be a level of confidence in the counting. Something we in the United States seem to be lacking at present.

The election process was with the direct involvement of the people. It was the people themselves being responsible for their election and the counting of the ballots. It did not include a computer, not a touch screen instrument of questionable integrity, but people, warm bodies, making collective decisions and counting the ballots. I was in awe and wondered why those in the United States can’t seem to do this.

I stayed for Nelson Mandela’s inauguration that took place in Pretoria and what a celebration it was. Tandi Gcabashe and her mother were on the stage. Tandi told me that she mentioned to her ANC colleagues that the South African whites were probably helping the ANC with the protocol of what to do with all the international dignitaries who came to the ceremony. She was told, however, that the whites were clueless, as for years they had been ostracized by world governments and hadn’t experienced anything like this. A new day had come to be sure.

I shared the feelings of many when I presented the following in prose to Tandi in Johannesburg before she left for Natal to observe the elections, “The generosity, beauty, wisdom and humility are Tandi, but more than that…It is the richness of her African soul which has emanated and profoundly touched her countless sisters and brothers on both continents. As our mentor and learned teacher she has drawn us to Africa. Tandi, we are honored to hold your hand in the land of your ancestors. This moment, this day, this year are yours and that of your people(we) thank you for allowing us the privilege of sharing this unprecedented historical moment with you.”

Tandi, who now lives in South Africa, embodies the African philosophy of “umbuntu” (people being connected to one another,”an injury to one is an injury to all”) that is consistently promoted by the South African leader Bishop Tutu.

There are, today, enormous challenges in South Africa. It will take years for South Africans to turn around the mess created by Europeans in that beautiful country. And the election process in 1994 was not perfect–is it ever? But, oh, what a thrill and privilege it was to be there!

HEATHER GRAY produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.



Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.