Soapbox: A personal tale of voting virginity and heartbreak
Each morning as I leave my grandmother’s house, I pass the memorial of the Trojan Horse massacre where three young people were killed on October 15 1985 during an apartheid police ambush in Thornton Road, Athlone.
Right at the traffic light about 500m away, at a teacher training college, my mother had her heart broken for the first time. In 1980 the authorities presented the militant students of her year with an ultimatum. They were forced to either end their classroom boycott by signing their names, or leave the school unqualified.
A collective decision was taken to continue the boycott despite the cost at which it came. In effect, they were forsaking a future as professionals in the name of a grander cause, in the name of their children, in the hope of an equal society.
On returning from the school vacation, she found that the leaders of the boycott had secretly signed their names, declaring that as individuals they would not continue the boycott. The remaining few, who learnt too late of their compromised position, learned that their continued boycott would be inconsequential.
My mother wept for two days after the incident at the betrayal of her friends and comrades. Her belief in the integrity of the cause had diminished severely. My mother, now disillusioned by the hope of political change, is a teacher of 30 years in a coloured ghetto not far from where she trained.
She has since channelled her desire for change into moulding young minds who, by way of survival, have more immediate concerns than the possibility of voting. Her first heartache never left her, and it seemed to replay itself in ways she could not ignore.
In 1993, the National Party (NP) instituted an education renewal strategy that effectively made education a paid commodity. Parents were forced to pay increased fees and teachers were offered exit packages as an incentive to leave the profession.
By 1996 it appeared to her as if the ANC-led government had instituted a fiscal policy that had much the same effect as the NP’s did in 1993. Again, the package offered seduced some teachers and they left. These teaching posts were never filled, resulting in an increased teacher-student ratio and general overuse of capacity in the absence of a clear method of resistance.
The series of teacher strikes inspired by this situation was more a dilemma than a solution for my mother. Many of her colleagues were fervent supporters of the strikes. Coincidentally, their children attended fully resourced Model-C schools where teachers had no need to strike. The children of those who wanted to strike were protected by those who didn’t have to, by the luxuries of the private sector. Again, she was faced with a problem of political isolation.
Around the same time my father, also an educator, witnessed the dissolution of a once vibrant vehicle of mobilisation, the South African Council on Sport (Sacos). He saw a “sell-out negotiation” give in to the inclusion of South Africa in international sport, which Sacos stood firmly against.
The militant young sportsmen and women of Sacos refused to participate in “normal” sport in a society in which they were deemed grossly inferior. He witnessed the buying over of his friends and comrades who were promised financial support and opportunity in the new South Africa. Not only has the racist character of South African sport not undergone any radical change, but the resistance movement that sought to fight this injustice has long been destroyed.
The boycott of parliamentary democracy was a collective decision taken by the members of my family. The contract that created the new South Africa has made light of the martyrs of 1985 and of the dead of Marikana, and of the millions more who are dying because they are not lucky enough to have been born white and affluent in South Africa, old and new. It allowed for the flourishing of a capitalism that is wholly reliant on the exploitation and mass murder of the black majority.
By this logic, voting is seen as an instance of legitimation of the compromise, of a moral stance against the oppressed who parliamentary democracy refused to serve.
Perhaps through the bitterness and heartache experienced by my parents, and a personal belief that the current situation serves only to exacerbate the abjection of black life, I too stood on the side of the boycott in 2009 when I came of age.
But just a few months ago, I walked into the registration station by myself, my fragile heart clutched in one hand and my ID in the other: anxious but ready. On my return I explained to my mother the reasons for my decision. If my vote could be aggregated then her students stood a better chance of being fed, and her children would not pass through the dipping tank of the public schooling system. The public service sector would be saved from the condition in which she currently works, because those who are tasked with serving the public would be compelled to use their own product.
I explained to my father of the return of the Sacos slogan “no normal sport in an abnormal society”, which appears in the election manifesto of the party in which I had placed my newly found faith. I explained with some excitement just how simpatico my new hope is, and that prior to our meeting no political group stood close enough to my ideals for me to commit to, knowing full well the dangers of representative democracy in a capitalist society.
I was making a case for my preparedness, and for the preparation that young disaffected people around the country had begun to feel by putting their hope in a party not yet one year old which despite participating in the electoral game, nevertheless represented a possibility for change.
In my journey to womanhood I was confronted with an array of new questions. More significantly, I found a plethora of old questions that had the force of history behind them: the centrality of land redistribution to the national question, the protection of local industry, a living wage and universal quality and free education.
My father, a hardhearted Marxist, expressed only the suspicion that the party I had fallen for could easily have been created by the ruling ANC, to save itself from its present crisis and to save the idea of democracy without delivery.
My mother spoke to me as if she was readying her only daughter for womanhood, an attempt at insulation akin to preparing me for a first boyfriend. She said: “My darling, I just don’t want you to experience the same heartbreak that I did, because I am certain you will.”
I conceded that my “first time was not just going to be with anyone” and that it was important for me to make my own mistakes. She had a soft and sad look in her eye, in which I recognised a certain familiar naivete – a wish for me to guard my heart, or perhaps even to “use protection”.
The possibility of heartbreak signals for my generation an opportunity to continue on a path forged by our parents, for a future they will probably not come to see. Cautious as I am, my fear breathes with me as I make my way to the polls for the first time, in favour of the EFF.
Ziyana Lategan is a masters student in political science at UCT.