The ballot box, the wedding ring and the politician’s promise

Everyone knows there are two things you should never do: trust a politician’s promise and go home without your wedding ring. On 1 November, Thinus Coetzee (not his real name) did both.

Helderberg Christian Church is one of the Electoral Commission of South Africa’s (IEC’s) official voting stations in the Western Cape. Everyone in Somerset West refers to it as “Choices”, not because you go there for the verkiesing, but because the voting station used to be in the Choices Crisis Pregnancy Care Centre next door. 

It’s in Cape Town’s ward 84, better known as Helderberg, and it’s one of the metro’s biggest, geographically and by population. The Democratic Alliance lost 19 seats and saw its majority reduced from 66.7% to 58.2% in Cape Town, but Helderberg bucked the trend, handing the party a convincing 81.3% majority there.

Journalist-turned-ward 84 DA councillor Norman McFarlane is obviously pleased with the result. But his “forever” memory of the 2021 local government elections will be what happened at the end of a long day, at the end of a long queue.

At about 9pm, he got a panicked call from a DA agent, saying the IEC official had closed the door to the voting station.

“They’re not allowed to,” McFarlane said. “They’re supposed to put an IEC official or a police officer behind the last person in the queue at 9pm and allow everyone in front of them to vote, no matter how long it takes.”

Norman McFarlane

So he rushed to Choices, intervened successfully and remained inside to monitor proceedings.

It was close to midnight, the boxes were full and an IEC official was forcing the ballots in with a ruler. One of the last people in the queue walked up to the ballot box, pushed his paper through the slot … and then cried out in dismay.

Coetzee takes over the story. On voting day, he was 30 and had been married exactly one month. 

“The queue was very long all day, so I went later,” said Coetzee. “But still, I must have stood for nearly four hours.”

At about 11.30pm, Coetzee eventually reached the front. 

“I went to put my ballot in, but it kept falling out because the box was so full. There was a lady standing there pushing the ballots in with a ruler, but I could see that wasn’t working so well,” Coetzee said. “So I decided to push it in with my hand.”

It was a tight fit and to his horror, as he pulled out his hand, his wedding ring slid off his finger into the box.

He cried out and reached forward to open it. “I thought ‘No, I can’t lose my wedding ring like this.’ But they stopped me and said, ‘You’re not allowed to open the box.’”

He was getting desperate when McFarlane approached him.

“I told him what happened and he said, ‘I promise I will make sure you get your wedding ring back.’”

McFarlane wrote down the seal number, took Coetzee’s details and when the doors were locked for counting, he remained inside. 

“I told the presiding officer what had happened and when it came time to open that box, all the IEC officials and party agents had their eyes on it.”

It was upended. Out dropped the ring, rolled along the table and bounced across the floor.

“There was a huge cheer,” McFarlane said. 

He took a photo of it and WhatsApped it to the relieved newlywed.

The next day, Coetzee went and collected it.

“The oom was the only one willing to help,” he said. “I was so grateful because I was literally one month married and this happened.”

He hadn’t told his wife that night. “I told her when I got it back. Luckily she just laughed, but if it hadn’t turned out that way, it wouldn’t have been such a nice story.”

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