South African Elections: The fresh air of hope

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The Independent Online
WE MIGHT call it the X-halation factor. For the second time in five years it has been proved that when otherwise fractious South Africans are called on to make their crosses in democratic elections, they swing the national mood at a stroke of their pencils. There is a collective breathing out of the accumulated fumes of pessimism, pressure and fear; a deep inhalation of the fresh air of hope.

South Africans did it again on Wednesday. They confounded predictions of apathy and ire and showed that the cathartic poll of 1994 was more than a one-off. It was an expression of the better nature of the country's polyglot nation.

Far from impatience, voters even seemed to enjoy queuing in the winter landscape, and the opportunity to bring people together for a day across all lines of colour and class.

Black voters said the onset of the election had caused them to think about what had and had not changed in post-apartheid South Africa. The overwhelming view was that much had changed in the past five years. It was as if disappointments in job creation, crime prevention, social upliftment and the rest were taken as given, but placed in a different, broader, context for a day.

A young black woman could be heard in snatched conversation in a long Johannesburg queue: "Last time I was scared to vote, because I didn't know how to. Now I know it is my right ... There are a lot of things wrong but I think things are going to come more and more right for South Africa."

People were talking of things they had not mentioned for years. "Remember 1989, when the whites used to vote on their own?"; "Remember the states of emergency?"; "Hey, we were in trouble in those days."

In the week before the poll there were television programmes showing footage of the pre-1994 era, and memories had clearly come flooding back.

The incoming Thabo Mbeki presidency can take comfort from this week's atmosphere and will no doubt seek to use the "second-honeymoon" period between election and inauguration on June 16 as a platform for a second wave of optimism and industriousness.

This second election is a tremendous opportunity for victors to show magnanimity and also a chance for opposition groupings - whether they have grown or shrunk - to acknowledge the earned right of the ruling party to govern, and to stake out their own vital, constructive role in the multi-party democracy.

Shaun Johnson is editorial director of Independent Newspapers in South Africa and a columnist