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South African Elections: A soap opera turns into a drama

We've had our dramas in my home over the years. Most of them revolve around Henrietta, my maid, and all those who live with her on the premises.

These, at the latest count, are the dramatis personae: Henrietta Mqokomiso, who is in her mid- forties and is one of two people on my payroll; Fisman, her younger brother, works at a factory that manufactures ambulances during the week and diligently sets about defoliating my garden at weekends; then there's Rosie, Fisman's wife, and their three children; there's Cathrina, Henrietta's 16-year- old niece; there's a quiet young man, a cousin, called Michael; there's Stanley, Henrietta's boyfriend, as she describes him; and a six-month-old baby, another family inheritance, who Henrietta looks after.

Others have come and gone during the five years I've lived in South Africa. I feel as if I've been a spectator at a long-running soap opera.

Last year Rosie decided to abandon Fisman, who allegedly drank too much, and ran off with the children to her parents' village in the Transkei. I drove there with Fisman to try and persuade her to return, but we failed. At the end of last year, after a complicated series of family transactions, Rosie returned. Pregnant.

I mention this because it has some relevance to the events of the last two historic days.

On Wednesday afternoon I accompanied Henrietta and Rosie to my local polling station, Rosebank Primary. I had been to Soweto earlier and I was struck by the contrast. As we walked towards the polling station I saw fleets of Mercedes and BMWs. Trees, rare in Soweto, shaded us. What I was least prepared for, however, was the racial mix at the long queue. Seventy per cent of the voters, at least, were black. It suddenly dawned on me that perhaps I wasn't the only white in the affluent suburbs of Johannesburg who had a small township living in the backyard.

Rosie was heavy with child and we decided, given the long wait we'd have to face, to return early next morning.

I got up at 6.30 yesterday and was surprised to discover that, while I slept, Rosie had gone into labour and an ambulance had come to take her to hospital. 'Rosie, she said she was very worried she would not be able to vote,' Henrietta said, 'so she took her ID book with her.'

So we strolled off again, Henrietta and I, to Rosebank Primary. On the way there we passed Fisman, coming back. He had gone ahead of us, had voted and was grinning like a Cheshire cat. We passed a number of middle-aged white couples. They all seemed - unusually - to be holding hands, as if needing to share the weight and the solemnity of the moment.

The mood at the queue was solemn generally, as I had found it to be in Soweto on Wednesday morning. Everybody, black and white, appeared to be in a state of deep concentration. The black people in particular. There was something very precious about this moment and they wanted not only to savour and treasure it but, above all, to make absolutely sure they did not mess up their first opportunity to vote. One man in Soweto had told me he had not slept all night for fear that he might 'wake up dead' and miss the greatest moment in his life.

Henrietta wasn't talking much, though she did remark that she was far from pleased by Buthelezi's threats of withdrawing from the election. 'He wants to ruin everything, that man. He moans all the time. He's a baby. A spoilt baby.' Then she went quiet again. I watched her vote. Terribly brisk and businesslike, revealing no emotions.

Henrietta remained deep in thought. When we got home she opened up. 'The world is changing. It's amazing. I never thought I would vote with white people. I feel fresh. I feel like there is something new in my life.' Like Christmas? I ventured. 'No, Johnny. It's more than a Christmas.'

It was like Christmas in one respect. We phoned the hospital to learn that Rosie's disappointment at her failure to vote had been compensated by the birth of her first son. What, I asked Henrietta, was his name going to be? I should have guessed. 'Rosie, she said if it was a boy she was going to call him Nelson.'