In April, while Americans were obsessing about President Obama’s first 100 days, people in countries around the world were going to the polls to vote for their own kind of change. Writers in India, Indonesia and South Africa report on their recent Election Days — as well as the mornings after.
Like many people who lived through apartheid, I am a sentimental democrat. Election Day fills me with sympathy for my fellow citizens. People I am happy to ignore or dislike the rest of the year become my comrades. Just for a day.
The autumn in Johannesburg has been so mild this year, it felt like the rebellious spring of South African democracy. “It was like this when we voted in 1994,” we’ve been saying, “sunshine and perfect blue skies.” Then on Election Day, on April 22, the temperatures plummeted. I awoke to ice in the air and mist in the valley.
It seemed like a sign. But by lunchtime the clouds had blown away and the sun was blazing. As I walked to the polling station at the Doug Whitehead School in Cressy Street, I was reminded of a television interview I saw with Jacob Zuma, our president in waiting. A journalist asked him about the cloud of mistrust hanging over him now that the fraud charges he was facing have been dropped without being tested in a court of law. “We have no cloud,” he answered. “Nothing. Not even the mist.” And he waved his hand over his head to show that there was nothing there.
I thought about Helen Zille, the leader of the Democratic Alliance. During the last leg of her campaign, on the Cape Flats, she was singing an Afrikaans ditty: “Die besem, die besem, wat maak ons met die besem?” “The broom, the broom, what do we do with the broom? We sweep with it, we sweep with it, we sweep Zuma into the sea!”
Talk of sweeping people into the sea makes me nervous. South Africa has a long coastline.
I was delighted to find a queue outside the school. Everyone in it was my comrade, the tattooed youths voting for the first time, the workers in overalls, the old lady dressed for the church bazaar.
The Doug Whitehead School caters to children with special needs. The school hall is modest, a little worn and tattered. At one end is a small stage with faded velvet curtains. Tasseled paper lanterns and twirls of Christmas tinsel dangled from the ceiling, as if there had been a party here and the revelers had to leave in a hurry. You could see that the posters setting out the duties of electoral officers had been used before.
The officers were at metal tables under tall windows. I was directed toward “the first lady.” She found my name in the voters’ roll, a bound computer printout as thick as a telephone directory, and drew a line through it with the help of a metal ruler. Her ballpoint pen left a blob at the end of the line. I could have hugged her for it — but would she have understood?
At the next table, the inker pressed a cotton ball into a pad of indelible ink and marked my left thumb to show that I had voted. It looked like a big purple bruise. Someone else handed me the ballot papers and I went into a cardboard booth with a handwritten number taped to it. In the flimsy privacy of the booth, under lastsummer’s tinsel, I made my mark.
The last time I voted, the stain on my thumbnail took months to grow out, separating from the cuticle like a slow-rising sun. I soon forgot it. But a month after the election, a shopkeeper, catching sight of the mark as I handed over my cash, said: “I see you’re a democrat like me. Or did you just hit your thumb with a hammer?”
Ivan Vladislavic, the author of the forthcoming book Portrait With Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked.