April 22, 2009

Election Day

It was Election Day today in South Africa. That meant a day off work for me. What a great idea!

Driving around, I felt simultaneously excluded from a process I couldn’t take part in and swelled with pride at the sight of so many South Africans making democracy work. I saw some pictures of long lines in news reports but all the polling stations I passed were less busy, which I take as a sign of increased efficiency. (Or it could be I slept in and so missed the morning rush.) Let’s face it: after the ’94 election, it’s impossible for Western media to write a story about a South African election without putting in a picture of a long line somewhere. I don’t know how representative those pictures are.

Many of the people - in fact, virtually all of them - who had told me at some point in the last six months that they weren’t going to vote evidently changed their minds and voted today. That surprised me and impressed me. Unlike in the U.S., where people talk about their vote all the time, there is a strong social norm not to disclose who you voted for. And you definitely don’t ask, as I found out the hard way.

Towards the end of the day, I stopped at the ANC election headquarters in Mthatha. There were a lot of supremely confident folk sitting around, basking in the glow of an anticipated victory. I asked for - and received - a t-shirt to commemorate the moment. And I took the opportunity to remind them about Itipini and told them not to forget its existence. (Though in the mental fog of Xhosa, I neglected the negative and so ended up reminding them to forget Itipini.) I am sure that virtually all the people in Itipini I know voted for the ANC. It’d be nice if they saw something for that.

The talk among most white people and middle-class Africans I know in South Africa has been largely anti-ANC, particularly anti-Zuma. I’ve heard repeated sighs of, “How are we possibly going to elect him when he is such a flawed candidate?”

Briefly, I disagree. I’m no great fan of Jacob Zuma, think he’s said and done some dumb things in the past, and think the ANC has many other capable people who are not, unfortunately, in positions of leadership. Regardless, it’s a mistake to think that one election will change the course of history. I don’t fear that Zuma will pull this country (any further) off the rails. Elections are just one part of the overall fabric of democracy and we make a mistake when we invest them with so much significance.

What I’m hopeful will happen in this election is that the ANC will be held below the two-thirds super-majority it currently enjoys and that the results will further encourage the formation of the kind of credible opposition this country needs. That will amount to an encouraging - and realistically achievable - consolidation of South African democracy in this election.

The Hebrews wandered 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the promised land. This election only marks 15 years for South Africa. But the results can move the country closer to that promised land and I hope they do.