/ 27 April 2024

30 YEARS OF DEMOCRACY: Taking on the lions and chief

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South African citizens queue to vote in the first democratic election in 1994. (David Turnley/Getty Images)

History is a cruel but effective teacher. As the 2024 polls rapidly come into view, we decided to dedicate space to the eternal journalism committed by our colleagues of the past. Thirty years ago they were given the formidable task of documenting the election that would take South Africa into democracy. This is their work. We both celebrate it and look to it for lessons to guide our own responsibilities next month. – Luke Feltham, acting editor in chief

On Tuesday afternoon, Mam’ Lydia Kompe piled her bakkie high with groceries and grandchildren and set off to vote in her home village of Tsimanyane, in the Nebo district of Lebowa.

 Twenty-four hours later, she made the kind of history that might pass unobserved, but that was revolutionary to the hierarchies of the Bakone tribe; as the first daughter of sprawling, poverty-stricken Nebo to be sent to parliament, she was offered the privilege of voting a few steps behind Chief Mokgoma Matlala.

Mam’ Lydia Kompe is going to parliament. Mam’ Lydia, a sparsely-educated woman, the founder of the growing Rural Womens’ Movement, the avowed enemy of the patriarchy of chieftainship.

“Look around you,” she declared, her arm describing a broad arc taking in the thousands of women and sprinkling of men sitting outside the police station. “This is my constituency. Women are the majority in the rural areas. It’s time we used our majority to fight for our rights.”

Before the polling station opened, Mam’ Lydia had her first-ever audience with Matlala. He said: “Those most worried about the role of women in a traditional system have a superficial knowledge of the role women play. They don’t accept that women have real, meaningful powers.”

Of course, he continued, “women don’t take part in our court systems. They are regarded as minors and are subject to the powers of their husbands”. 

Which only makes Mami Lydia’s vote more revolutionary: she, and the thousands of women who followed her, were voting in the very courtroom of the Matlala Tribal Authority that treats them as minors; exercising in this traditional space their full rights for the first time.

Mam’ Lydia flattered her chief, playing every bit the deferring female subject. But in the field, she displayed what must be the sharpest tongue in Nebo. At Tsimanyane on Wednesday afternoon a mob scene was developing as young voters jostled with older people who had been waiting to vote since the previous morning. 

Mam’ Lydia pushed the youth to one side. “These elders have been waiting since yesterday to cast a vote that will secure your future. Show some respect.” 

The young lions laughed, but they moved quick-time anyway.