South African Election: Poor greet ANC with whoops and dancing

Click to follow
The Independent Online
YESTERDAY I went campaigning with Justice and Champagne. The combination went down well. Champagne is a bright young man with a ready smile. Justice is older and more serious. As they drove around the huge farms of the Orange Free State to distribute African National Congress posters and leaflets among the farm-workers the reception varied between enthusiasm and ecstasy.

Our first stop was a line of small garage-like huts made of concrete blocks and corrugated iron, set in a sea of maize which stretched from horizon to horizon. In the dusty back yard where a few scrawny chickens scratched around an open wood fire Michael Phadi, a shabbily dressed young farm worker, wanted to know what time the ANC would send transport so he could go into town to vote. He complained that the farmer had asked all 17 workers to hand in their identity cards and they were worried they would not be able to vote without them.

Mr Phadi gets paid 150 rand ( pounds 30) per month and a pounds 100 bonus at the end of each year. A greater worry than pay was that anyone who was no longer able to work could be evicted with his family at a moment's notice by the farm owner. Justice assured him this was something the ANC would stop.

Champagne distributed stickers saying 'I'm voting ANC' and explained to a young woman how to find the face of Nelson Mandela on a sample ballot paper.

As we drove on Champagne explained that the farm workers are among the most oppressed blacks in South Africa, poorly paid and with few rights. 'They do all the work and the farmer gets all the profit,' he said and explained that the farm workers' union was not strong yet. The ANC would try to secure better pay and a pension and give workers more rights of housing tenure.

So far, he said, not even the farmers with the worst reputations had refused to allow the ANC to canvass their workers and some of the more progressive ones had offered to bring them to vote in the farm lorry.

The next stop was a similar collection of huts, thick with woodsmoke and babies. Our arrival was greeted with whoops and ululations. The house was soon crammed and a dance began. Justice had to go back to the car for more posters. One old woman said to me: 'This is my dream of all my life - to vote,' and kissed my hand. Then she turned to Champagne and asked if I was from the AWB, the white, extreme right-wing party. Champagne's reassurances were drowned by laughter but just to make sure the woman stuck a large ANC sticker on my shirt. With absolute correctness Champagne offered to remove it after we left.

Our third stop was the Madeira bottle store and garage. Justice politely asked the Portuguese owner if he could campaign among the crowd watching television in the back bar. That was not a problem but it was a waste of time. The Zimbabwe versus South Africa football game was being broadcast live and the election clearly took second place. Hands accepted leaflets and stickers but eyes did not leave the screen.

The car would not start when we tried to leave. The immobiliser would not work. A small crowd gathered and advice was offered. Eventually a drunken man staggered out of the bar and explained that there was a system operating around the shop which immobilised immobilisers. His words were greeted with derision by all but we pushed the car up to the main road. Sure enough it started. 'He was an illiterate and drunk. How did he know that?' said Champagne. 'Another of Africa's little mysteries.'

The last stop was a police station where we approached a nervous- looking white policeman who explained he could not allow anyone in to canvass without permission of the station commander.

'That's all right. We quite understand your position. Please tell him we will call again tomorrow,' said Justice. Champagne smiled and we walked back to the car in silence. They knew they need not hurry and fight any more. Champagne and Justice know their hour has come.