I had my first article published in Afrikaans this week, in Die Burger and Beeld - on the eve of the country's fifth general elections.
This is before the translation.
The faces of Jacob Zuma, Helen Zille, Julius Malema and other party leaders look worn and weathered on street poles – a sign that the time for bluster is over.
It is time for them to take a backseat and for voters to do the talking in the most significant election since our historic poll 20 years ago.
The weathered look extends to leaders and party campaigners who have breathlessly campaigned through big cities and small towns all year. They have vied for media space – not always successfully - with the sensational Oscar Pistorius trial. They have serenaded voters and hit out at opponents at rallies, on social media, in debates, and even in the court room during the rumbustious buildup to Wednesday’s fifth general elections.
Their campaigning done, politicians’ hands are tied as millions of voters head to the sanctity of the polling booth to make their cross at one of about 22 000 voting stations around the country.
Among the more than 25 million registered voters, I will join the queue with my tattered green bar-coded ID. I feel a great sense of occasion that my 18-year-old son, Tyler, will also stand in line with his crisp ID book which he collected from home affairs in the nick of time.
In truth, Tyler may not have made the effort to register if I hadn’t persisted. Like others from the “born free” generation, he can relate to the disconnect that the youth in all communities feel about political parties. Encouraging him, I reminded him of the saying: “if you think you are too small to make a difference, you have never spent a night in bed with a mosquito.”
While Tyler may not be as committed about voting, he has no doubt about who to vote for. Not influenced by sentimentality, nostalgia or a sense of obligation to a particular party, he has decided to vote for the party that he – and his peers – relate to most.
I am among an estimated 10% of voters this year who are undecided, according to the latest Ipsos poll. I have felt conflicted. Twenty years after freedom, innocence is lost. It is easy to feel disappointment and outrage at the current crop of leaders. But it would be hypocritical to sit on the sidelines. Withdrawing does nothing for the democratic process, only adding fuel to the doomsayers who believe South Africa is on the verge of a failed state.
Like millions of South Africans - 79% of adults according to an HSRC poll - I feel obliged to vote. The HSRC observed that this was an encouraging finding “that sets us apart from more mature democracies in Europe and North America, where there has been a diminishing sense of electoral duty in recent decades”.
Everyone who voted in 1994 will recall their sense of wonderment. In the build-up to these elections, I travelled through rural towns as a freelance journalist in a 1973 VW Combi. A time before cellphones, we were equipped with a laptop, fax machine and generator. On April 27, there was no voters roll, no need to register beforehand. I joined the winding queue along a dirt road at Waterval Farm School near Van Reenen in the Free State. Aged 28, I was a “virgin voter”. At the station, first-time voters, “many colourfully dressed in thick blankets and woollen caps, arrived on the back of tractors, in cattle trucks and on horses. Men and women formed separate queues as they patiently waited in the chilly morning,” I wrote in City Press at the time.
Twenty years after freedom, it will still be a moving experience to stand in line, and to make my selection from the eclectic line-up of political parties – 29 on the national ballot.
On Wednesday night, exhausted leaders and party organisers will gather under one roof at the IEC nerve centre in Pretoria as results filter through overnight. Similar gatherings will take place in the 9 provinces. There will surely be a measure of camaraderie as South Africa achieves another milestone in our multi-party democracy, a democracy that depends on an engaged electorate and an accountable government with a robust opposition.
On May 21, ruling party and opposition party members will be sworn at the first sitting of the fifth parliament. Days later, the president – certainly to be majority party ANC leader Jacob Zuma – will be inaugurated. Thereafter, the real challenge begins in parliament and provincial legislatures. The new team – some old faces, some new, some good, some bad - will be tasked with stopping the decay and honouring Nelson Mandela’s legacy. If politicians work together and invest the same voomah into their day job as they did on the campaign trail, then our votes were treated with the respect they deserved. But if they trample on them, real trouble lies ahead.
· Heard is parliamentary editor at Media 24
Footnote: Today, I voted in Harmony in Central Pretoria. It took 50 minutes from start to finish (see pix). Tyler voted in Lakeside, Cape Town. It took him a few minutes.