Vani Naidoo
Vani Naidoo

Remember Mama, and the fight, for your right to vote

I CAN conjure up the scene with very little effort.

Deep blue skies providing a beautiful contrast to rolling green hills, cows dotted along the ridges munching contentedly oblivious to the history in the making as the sun beats down furiously on the snaking line disappearing into the distance.

As I lean against the corrugated iron wall of this ramshackle building that is generously called a schoolhouse my senses are filled with crying babies, the rising smoke from hastily made cooking fires and the almost palpable sense of excitement.

I am in Peacevale, a rural suburb not too far from Durban on South Africa's east coast and the day is April 26, 1994 - the eve of the country's first democratic elections.

As a university student in a country where everyone was highly politicised, I had jumped at the chance to be an electoral officer in these elections and here I was in the middle of nowhere with no electricity or running water.

Mama Agnes summons me with a quick brush of her hand. She is sitting hunched over a pot, stirring  the maize meal porridge almost absentmindedly as she issues warnings to the youngsters who venture too close to the fire.

Her wrinkled face gleams in the African sun, her eyes twinkling despite the tiredness so obvious in her curled shoulders.

Mama Agnes is 83 and for the first time in her life she is able to vote.

She walked for two days to get to this voting station but she says her heart was singing all the way. She hands me a plate with a small lump of porridge and settles down for a chat.

From the folds of her dress she brings out a crumpled picture of Nelson Mandela. She will vote for him, she says, even though he is from a different clan because he has kindness in him.

The next morning she is quick to the door of the polling booth, the younger people in front making way for her as is custom.

Her cheeks are wet with tears as she pushes the folded ballot paper through the slot in the battered metal box. They are happy tears, she says, the fight for freedom is finally over. 

It took three days for South Africans to vote in those elections, the atmosphere was relaxed and festive filled with laughter and song. Images of millions of people from different races standing side by side waiting to cast their votes were beamed across the world offering up anew picture of a South Africa where democracy had finally squashed apartheid.

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On Saturday, Australians will once again have an opportunity to choose those people they wish to run the country.

Studies show that 40% of voters here only do so to avoid being fined, many of those either spoiling their vote or just ticking the first box that comes to hand.

At the last Federal election 1.5 million of the 15 million people eligible to vote had not registered to do so, almost a million were on the roll and did not vote and more than 700,000 cast informal or spoilt ballots that could not be counted.

Those figures are troubling but not unsurprising in a country where we seem to take our good fortune for granted.

Perhaps it is our disdain for recent political circuses, perhaps it is apathy, or even that there is no one we really want to support, but we would do well to remember that the vote in this country was not easy to come by.

Hundreds of thousands of people died to ensure we were given a franchise and a chance to have a say in governance.

To not use that privilege, to regard it as an inconvenience or a burden is not only disrespectful of those who gave their lives so you could have a voice but is also a slap in the face for the process of democracy.

The election is not just about ticking the boxes in the shortest time possible, it is about voting for people or a party that shares your views on the economy, you compassion for asylum seekers, and where you see this country going.

It is about whether you support schemes like the broadband network or improvements to education and health.

It is about making a choice about big ticket items that affect your everyday life in little ways. If you don't, you have no cause to complain about the choices being made by the government of the day.

Remember, too, that you are voting not just for the next three years but for the future.

Consider things that will impact you in 10, 20 even 30 years' time because the choices we make now will shape Australia's path.

Maybe we need to relearn how to opt for policies and ideologies over people, because as we know leaders can come and go faster than that knife in the back.

To vote is to try and give a voice to positive change, to accept responsibility for being part of the solution, to acknowledge it is a privilege that should be protected.

So when you walk down to that polling station, even if it is just for the promise of  that free sausage sizzle, be grateful that unlike Mama Agnes it didn't take you 83 years to get there.



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