Voting day in a Cape Town suburb

South Africa held its fifth democratic national election on May 7. The political dynamics between urban communities and party candidates over the past year ensured much anticipation over the outcome of an occasion that brings with it the prospect for refreshing change and the assurance that things will in all likelihood stay the same.

With over 25,360,000 members of the population registered to vote – amongst which would be the first generation of “born-free” voters – Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) officials were expecting a busy day administrating the 22,000 voting stations located in populated suburbs nationwide.

My experience started fifteen minutes into the stipulated opening hours of the voting stations, which commenced at 7 a.m. Walking towards Mowbray Town Hall in Cape Town’s southern suburbs in the misty late autumn sunshine – the presence of which would continue to dapple the day with fair weather for the five-yearly highlight of South Africa’s political calendar – I passed animated groups of voters who, according to one of them, had been waiting in line since 6.30 a.m. to avoid the droves of people expected to take to the queues later in the day.

The tail-end of the line was already extending 20 metres along the pavement bordering the front of the demarcated building by the time I had reached it. Despite what was going to be a long wait for some, excitable chatter amongst voters eased the early morning chill. The atmosphere was pleasant and comforting, a result of the camaraderie sensed among voting residents living under the same location banner but each with a different life story to tell. Although no party advertising was allowed close to the voting stations, certain supporters bared the cold enough to expose t-shirts that displayed their loyalties. The pair of first-time voters three people down from me, finding familiarity in each other through their matching university jerseys, could be heard chatting excitably about their options on who to vote for.

I listened to few voters deliberating over their contrasting certainties of the best box in which to make a mark. Others admitted to still having little idea of where they would place the pen when it came to the moment they exercised their political participation. Including those who preferred to keep their sentiments to themselves, or were distracted by a book, I couldn’t help but notice the common acceptance of difference in views (or non-views), and a shared understanding present in various conversations about the common position in which each resident felt placed as a result of the current political structure that affected their ability to exercise a political affiliation.

I entered the building just under 45-minutes later and overheard a conversation about fast-food outlet Wimpy offering a free coffee for all voters. The news travelled like a shockwave through the queue and in no time it was a collective plan amongst those in the vicinity to swing past the fast-food outlet for a morning caffeine boost. It didn’t take long for me to have my left thumb inked and ballot paper marked, and I was soon walking out the back exit doors into sunlight already brighter than when I had entered the building.

I commented on the length of the queue outside to an IEC official checking Identification Documents. He mentioned that those manning the voting stations were anticipating a high turnout that day. The elections were later reported to have drawn staggering numbers of the population in South African cities. IEC chairwoman Pansy Tlakula said that the “extremely high turnout in urban areas” was a “pressing challenge” that the staff had been facing throughout the day.

This was easy to believe by the evident excitability that voting day had sparked amongst Cape Town’s suburban residents. At the Wimpy in Rondebosch, a five-minute walk away from two voting stations, students could be seen taking photos with their purple-spotted thumbs, their friends with whom they waited in line, or their freshly stamped ID books – all tangible elements proving their active citizenship.

Catching a taxi later that day from Wynberg, one commuter sitting near me took the liberty to point in my direction with a smile and ask, “Who has your ‘x?’” The conversation we embarked upon from there could not have been uncommon throughout Cape Town as members of the city’s diverse communities and areas all had at least one thing in common on their agenda that day. Thus everybody had a conversation to share. Despite the political complacency brought on by government ineffectiveness and short-handed alternatives, the fellowship evident amongst Cape Town’s voting citizens attested to a common desire to see change towards a more just society – a shared aspiration that we can only hope can remain a driving force forward to collectively achieving it.


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