There’s a kind of hush

It’s been a confusing few months for world-weary observers of African elections, as they’ve sat and watched South Africa and waited for the smoke to rise. Where’s all the razor wire? This isn’t an election campaign, it’s a queue. And no one is cutting in.

To be fair, Patricia de Lille seems to have tried. Her alleged attempt on Tuesday night to slug it out with the African National Congress in Upington was an engrossing bout by all accounts, the steaming featherweight displaying an educated left hook, while Namaqualand councilman Joshua Losper, an unknown bantamweight challenger, came away looking somewhat flat-footed with a tendency to crouch in defence. Both denied actually landing any punches, but De Lille’s publicity machine made sure she took it on points, and her post-fight comments were straight out of the Mohammed Ali School of Talkin’ Jive.

“He’s too ugly to touch,” she said from the physio-table, having her vocal chords massaged, and one half expected her to issue a challenge to Tony Leon. “Talk like a buzz-saw, bite like a flea, he give me any kak and he’ll fall in three.” But the Rumble in the Rubble, and calling an ANC politician a “bloody fool” as De Lille subsequently did, is hardly in the Khmer Rouge class of political terrorism.

So far the only major political figure to threaten violence has been Thabo Mbeki, bonding with his male constituents over some light-hearted woman-beating gags. Those at whom Mbeki had pitched his speech, reassured that the 14th century was still under way, trundled home, got drunk and told some presidential jokes to their wives, replete with props like broken bottles and axe-handles.

Certainly, there have been sporadic outbreaks of nastiness since the announcement of the election date. The Inkatha Freedom Party’s Blessed Gwala pointed to an incident at the party’s campaign launch in which someone’s car was smashed. The implication was left hanging that the perpetrator had been a bat-wielding ANC goon, but given South Africans’ penchant for smashing cars, usually into other cars, this incident failed to catch the eye of the World Court.

Meanwhile, the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal savaged the Democratic Alliance for creating “white no-go suburbs”, presumably by barricading streets with poodles and grand pianos. Things hotted up further with the allegation that 40 ANC posters had been “viciously ripped from street poles”, raising fears for the safety of the other 90-million posters.

In Cape Town last weekend some workers from a civil engineering firm were reportedly shot at while removing illegal election posters along the N2 highway. The MD of the firm, Vincent Knight, was suitably outraged. “We were just trying to do our job and we were getting shot at,” he told the Weekend Argus. “I don’t think that that was democratic.” Clearly Mr Knight hasn’t been to great democracies like South Korea and Haiti, where it is considered a democratic necessity to engage in democratic running battles with democratic police who use democratic live ammunition.

The shots had apparently come from the direction of Cape Town International airport, although again there were implications of ANC thuggery: a man in a car, professing loyalty to the party, had arrived and questioned the workers over their activities, and then left. Sinister as all hell. A more pressing issue — that the shooter would inevitably tire of men on ladders and start potting Lufthansa Boeings — was ignored.

And in the hamlet of Melkbosstrand — Benoni with sand fleas — Corné Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus was accused of taking down DA placards. As if it wasn’t tough enough punting a party whose name sounds like a treatment for unsightly nose hair, Pieter Mulder now has to fight the growing impression that his organisation is staffed by Boetie and himself, marketed by Tannie Mulder using her free airtime on weekends, funded with Oupa Mulder’s stamp collection, and voted for by a gaggle of undecided ingetroudes.

However, the merciful lack of bloodshed so far hasn’t precluded the outbreak here and there of full-blown riots. Bantu Holomisa presided over some fairly frisky gatherings in his days as Viceroy and Archduke Regent of the Transkei (Aloes Gules Over a Field of Mobile Toilets Rampant) but even he would have blanched at the chaos that ensued when United Democratic Movement faithful caught a sniff of free T-shirts at a rally. Little yellow shreds still flutter on razor wire all over the Eastern Cape.

Still, it had nothing on the menopausal mayhem that greeted FW de Klerk at a New National Party rally in Hanover Park this week. The daughters of those who had been shunted out onto the sandblasted dustbowl of the Cape Flats by De Klerk’s mentors hurled themselves at the barricades in ecstasies of mass amnesia, and had he unlimbered a guitar and crooned “You were always on my mind” most would have absconded at once to become NNP roadies. “Tell me, tell me that your sweet love hasn’t died Give me, give me once more chance to keep you satisfied” …

Two possible reasons for the calm present themselves. The first is the obvious and somewhat superficial one that we have come on as a country. But while some self-congratulation is in order, we shouldn’t claim national virtue just because there hasn’t been a series of massacres in the Midlands. Stability is more than the absence of unrest. Nonetheless it is a good start, and for the people living in the areas once contested via panga, who suffered the obscene consequences of evil rhetoric, the differences between temporary relief and lasting peace are irrelevant.

The second possibility is sheer apathy. To politicians and other aspiring apparatchiks apathy is a sin, a filthy word usually assigned to white people with Volvos when they hesitate the opinion that the latest governmental declaration of all-out war on crime might not immediately result in mass-surrenders by gang bosses and drug lords. To liberation movements apathy implies complicity with old regimes, pessimism, and an excessive fondness for cardigans and crossword puzzles.

But the further implications of apathy are more relevant to these elections. If our voter is not inclined to fight for a particular outcome, either with rhetoric or violence, it suggests that he is either comfortable or resigned. South Africans have even managed to meld the two into a new kind of apathy, an irritated contentment that believes, grudgingly, that things could be worse. We don’t hoot at taxis, complain about service, demand that our politicians or business leaders are sacked, because, well, things could be worse. Look at Zimbabwe. Look at the United States and the Middle East. Look everywhere. Thank God we live down here. Aids? At least it’s not al-Qaeda. Or Mel Gibson.

Naturally, contented resignation — or outright hopelessness, in the case of the poor — is not fertile soil for democracy, which needs a group of busy malcontents striving for change; but until the outcome of elections is uncertain it will remain the prevailing mood. How we deal with that uncertainty, when it arises, will be the real test of our virtue, when the 2004 elections will be remembered either as a fleeting summer of inexplicable peace, or the first embryonic heartbeat of a new, mature country.

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