On April 26, 1994 – the day of South Africa’s first post-apartheid democratic elections – I was driving from Minneapolis to Chicago in a rented mini-van tightly packed with fellow South African students from various colleges in Minnesota. We were on our way to the South African consulate in Chicago to cast our votes for the first time – mine for Nelson Mandela’s party, the African National Congress.
We may have been far away from the sunny jubilation of the first democratic elections at home, but we were determined not to miss out on history. For me, the moment has particular poignancy: I was born and lived my whole life outside South Africa. My father left South Africa when he was 19 years old. He returned in 1993 at the age of 53 after the ANC – of which he was a lifelong member – was unbanned.
Today, South Africans will go to the polls in the fifth national elections since 1994. But my vote for the ANC will not be assured, as it was in 1994. Like many South Africans I watched in horror as the South African police gunned down 34 miners two years ago. Most days I find it hard to stomach the news – there are so many corruption scandals that it is hard to keep track.
Despite this, I will forever love the movement that freed us, even as I recognize that it too needs its powers checked and diluted. This election, I am voting for a rebalancing of power in the next 20 years.
At the consulate in Chicago that day in 1994, we may have been disheveled college students, but we were treated like royalty. Until that day, most of us would have had no cause to be in the building; as black South Africans, the consul would have turned us away. But that year, everything had changed. My nuclear family was now “home,” living in South Africa. My mother was busy as one of only a handful of qualified black accountants in the country. My father was heading up a transitional fund to support non-profits to thrive in a new democracy. My youngest sister was in high school in Durban.
Exile is a neat word. It does nothing to convey the solitude that comes with being barred from the country of your heart. But that day 20 years ago I found it hard to be bitter. Instead, I was proud. I took my turn at the booth and marked my ballot with a vote for Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress.
When I called home to Durban later that day, my youngest sister picked up. I asked excitedly, “How was it?” At fifteen she was too young to vote, but she had no trouble answering my question. “Amazing Sonk, I wish you were here.” She described everything: the exuberance of the crowds, the fear that it might all go wrong, the hilarity of old white women insisting on jumping the queue. Her voice had the quality of bubble gum; it carried across the static in the line like pink and blue glitter thrown into a breeze.
The house was full of relatives and friends who had come to share the day with us, and somehow I managed to speak to everyone without the phone line cutting off. Finally my father got on the line. I clutched the phone as if by sheer force of will I might be transported to our living room in Durban. “So, you are in Chicago?” he asked. “Yes, Baba,” I responded, trying to pretend that I was not overwhelmed by the sound of his voice. “Well that’s good,” he said, “I am glad you made it.”
We were quiet for a while, suddenly unsure what to say. Then he said what I had been waiting to hear. “Here we are my child.” He used his affectionate name for me. He laughed and then said awkwardly, almost in a whisper, as though he cannot believe it himself, “We did it. We are free.”
That X crossed in a voting booth in Chicago marked my spot in history. It marked my place in a new nation at the start of a new era.
Since then, much has improved. In our village, there is now running water and electricity. The road has been paved, and there are many new houses in the community. But my cousins have endured abysmal educations, and too many of them have been victims of rapes and sexual assaults.
The ANC has become increasingly preoccupied with commandeering state resources either for the benefit of its leaders or for the party itself. Worse, in seeking to protect President Jacob Zuma from the many scandals in which he has become embroiled, the party has used its majority in parliament to try to change our laws. In its original form, the ominous Secrecy Bill – which was bravely resisted by ordinary citizens – would have jailed journalists who published “classified’ information.” A modified version remains on the legislative agenda for this year.
Despite my loss of faith in many of those who liberated us, I am excited about our democracy. South Africans are realizing that while elections matter, civic activism matters more.
Twenty years ago when I cast my vote, I was a grateful teenager. Today when I stand in that booth I will do so as an invested citizen, as a mother, as a woman concerned with the safety of all women in my country, and as a black person committed to living alongside my white compatriots in dignity.
When the tally is done, the ANC will win handily. Nonetheless, I will have voted my conscience, looking not to the past, but to the future.
Sisonke Msimang is a South African writer and commentator with a background in foundation work to support nonprofit organizations fighting for democratic change in Africa. She is currently an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow and director of advocacy and accountability at Sonke Gender Justice. Follow her on Twitter at @Sisonkemsimang.
Via the OpEd Project