I shifted my weight from one leg to the other, rubbing the front of my foot against the back of my calf in a futile attempt to ease the ache and ward off the cramps that were inevitable. I was paying the price for ten hours spent behind the counter, stamping forms.
The crowds weren’t diminishing – every time I looked up from the papers placed in front me I could see the people pressing in. The line snaked its way out the door and Marie told me that it wound its way down the street and around the corner.
A small groan escaped my lips and the man I was waiting on looked at me quizzically. “Everything all right?” he asked.
“Everything’s fine,” I assured him, “Just a bit tired, that’s all.”
He smiled, white teeth gleaming, “I understand – I’ve been in that line for hours!”
I stamped his form, and with a muted “Thank you” he moved to the next station. The void he left was filled immediately by a buxom, matronly looking woman accompanied by three well-scrubbed and extremely boisterous children.
“What a day it is!” She exclaimed, “What a happy day!” I checked her form, stamped it and she too moved on.
I felt guilty for a moment. At least I had a fan behind me, cooling my legs. This family had stood in the baking, broiling sun for God knows how long before entering the building and giving me the forms. And who knew how long they would wait for a cab, or a bus back to their home? Or perhaps they walked the distance, scuffing the red dirt as they made their way to the centre of town?
Tired I might be, but joy and yes, pride welled up in my heart. The lines were long, but the people waited patiently. They had waited over 100 years for this moment, what were a few hours more?
I paused for one second to look at my surroundings. There were 10 of us working this initial counter, and at least that many behind me, explaining the process to a group of people who had never experienced anything like this before.
I became aware of a low humming that soon reverberated through the building, echoing off the tin roof, “Namuhla si vota!” Waves of sound wafted out and the cry was taken up outside.
“What are they saying?” I hissed to Marie.
“Today we vote.” She replied, tears framing her blue eyes.
My eyes welled up too at the interpretation. All my aches and pains, and the thought of the long hours ahead of me were forgotten in that one magical moment.
The date was April 27, 1994 and I was privileged as a white woman to work behind the counter of the voting registry for all the Africans who for the first time in the young history of South Africa could have a say in how their country would work.
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