South African Election: Catharsis works its wonder through the ballot: Commentary

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The Independent Online
THE SOUTH African election began with bombs and ended with bureaucratic bungles - not ideal perhaps, but it is progress. The world, as some whites had feared, has not come to an end. What is surprising is how normal life appears, how little it seems to have changed.

But if you scrape the surface and watch carefully you can detect a subtle change in mood, as if through the ballot box South Africans have undergone a national ceremony of purification. Walking around the affluent suburb of Rosebank, I collected a few snapshots.

At Woolworths, four black female shop attendants in overalls were sharing a joke when an elderly white matron in blue rinse and pearls approached. 'Good morning, Mrs Shabalala. How are you today?' 'Fine, Ma'am,' Mrs Shabalala replied, without a hint of deference. 'How are you?'

Driving past the Big Apple Bar I caught a glimpse of two men - one white, one black - sitting outside. I sped past but had enough time to see from the body language and open smiles, that this was no token encounter, that they had formed an easy acquaintance.

And then on a lift at Johannesburg General Hospital I witnessed a little exchange between a white porter - a working-class Afrikaner you always automatically assumed to be a brazen racist - and a black junior nurse. He was teasing her. She teased him back, laughing flirtatiously.

These little scenes would be banal in any other context. Yet they do seem worth recording, because they would have been virtually unimaginable two or three years ago.

This is not to say that some whites do not remain jittery, and a handful hysterical. But what the election has done is render encounters of this kind so much more commonplace. There is a palpable confidence, a new dignity, among ordinary black people. There is less coyness - often a disguise for fear or guilt - about whites in their dealings with blacks. Each knows that the other voted for a different party. But it doesn't matter. 'We're all in it together now,' is the message on the invisible antennae. 'We've all got a shared stake in what happens to our country.'

Communication is becoming much more natural. On Johannesburg's Radio 702, whose talk-ins offer South Africa's most illuminating public forum, I heard a white man saying how he had queued to vote for four hours with his maid. 'We got to know each other better in that time than we had done in 10 years living under the same roof,' he said. Then there was an unemployed white man who told the 702 host how impressed he was by Nelson Mandela and Cyril Ramaphosa.

To grasp the depth of distrust that whites on the street have felt for the ANC, no better barometer has existed than Johannesburg's Citizen newspaper. But yesterday's editorial actually congratulated the ANC on its election victory.

Until barely a month ago the Citizen railed against the ANC with almost as much anti-Communist, thinly disguised racist fervour as some British newspapers. A British Sunday columnist was quoted in yesterday's South African press as saying: 'Black majority rule in South Africa should send a shudder around the world.'

Let the world do what it pleases. Few are shuddering here.