South Africa

South Africa

Spoils of power and the spoiling of ballots

Spoils of power and the spoiling of ballots

“It is common to oppose a truth, but impossible to resist a story”, said spiritual writer Anthony de Mello. Twenty years ago democracy was about enabling people to cast their vote in freedom. Today it is about the counting of votes to feed the addictive intoxications of power. Is the best antidote spoiling of ballots in protest? Inspired by some words from the African master storyteller Ben Okri, the writer says story telling offers an alternative, better suited when too much power for too long has rendered the intoxication a chronic condition. By JOHN GI CLARKE.

Ben Okri arrives today for a brief visit to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Pretoria – his first from an African University.

Ponder his words. “Stories are the secret reservoir of values. Change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves and you change the individuals and nations. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truth they will free their histories for future flowerings.”

Once upon a time, over a time period of seventy-two days, a story was born that re-shaped South Africa. This website chronicles a sequence of media reports clipped from various newspapers between March to 12th May 1994: to log the unfolding of the first democratic elections. The diary makes gripping reading.

March to 12th May 1994: to log the unfolding of the event. An idealistic 37-year-young peace activist, who had been fortunate to be hired by the Independent Electoral Commission to train monitors to ensure the election was “free and fair for all”, is now a 57-year-old peace activist. In comparison to electoral politics today he still finds the events improbable, incredulous, defying rational explanation, mysterious and therefore deeply meaningful, much more so than the electoral circus currently playing out. His ‘born free’ kids, impatient to make their own history, take what happened twenty years ago for granted.

At the time it was all happening, the peace activist would never have imagined that the smiling face of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi would in the ensuing 20 years, become a permanent fixture on every ballot paper printed for every election since. For, on the 15th a desperate race against time, the eighty million ballot papers that were running off printing presses did not have his face among the leaders of the eighteen other parties featuring for power. The IFP had refused to participate, unless… (we will come to that). Then they changed their minds. Cyril Ramaphosa at the time called it a ‘minor miracle’. Special strips of paper bearing Buthelezi’s face and the IFP logo had to be stuck on afterwards, just five days before polling commenced. That was a major miracle.

Still greater miracles were to follow. Conspirators intent on sabotaging the election were thwarted. Paradoxically the IFP’s dramatic turnaround had served to turn cynics around and convert agnostics into believers, more determined to thwart the election spoilers than before.

“I was send to pick up stocks of IFP stickers from the IEC HQ,” said another peace activist. “I noticed the car carrying right wing bombers intent on bombing the HQ parked nearby. They were caught before they could do so. Ironic to think I might have been blown up in the course of helping ensure the IFP, which I detested, was accommodated.”

To fully understand why Chief Buthelezi changed his mind can be discerned by means of the hermeneutic methods of Biblical exegesis. Four narratives exist of the Christian gospels, each relating the experiences of the historical Jesus written by four different authors.

Many versions of the dramatic pre-election deal have been written. The daily newspaper reports give a synoptic overview of the 72 days to describe what happened, but for insight into why things happened three perspectives of the episode (British journalist Richard Dowdon, a Christian evangelical Jamie Morrison and the said peace activist) suffice to help discern the truths from the lies by fishing in the collective “reservoir of values”. Perhaps doing so will (again?) free our history for future flowerings?

It is on reliable record that on the 16th April 1994 the compass of the chartered plane that was carrying Buthelezi away from a failed international mediation process went into a seizure of inexplicable gyrations, sending the pilot back to Lanseria airport to have it checked. Chief Buthelezi himself believes the epileptic compass was a divine intervention – a moment of grace.


The plane was heading to Ulundi, the capital of the Zulu self-governing homeland, with Buthelezi on board to explain disappointing news to Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini Bhekezulu.

A seven member international mediation team led by Henry Kissinger and Lord Carrington had gathered to secure an election that the IFP felt it could participate in. The parties could not even agree on a terms of reference. UDI for the Zulu kingdom seemed the only way forward for the IFP – something the ANC would never accept. An escalation of the civil war seemed inevitable. The homestead of a prominent ANC member Jacob Zuma, situated deep in the Zulu homeland territory at Nkandla had earlier been torched by an angry IFP mob. Kissinger and Carrington had gone home in frustration, seeing no way of avoiding another “Armageddon” in Africa. Rwanda had just degenerated into ethnic genocide.

However, a junior member of the international mediation team, Kenyan roving Ambassador Professor Washington Okumu, had remained, determined to keep trying. Late into the night of 15 April 1994 Okumu had hammered out a proposal with two IFP negotiators to put to Chief Buthelezi the next morning, before he left Johannesburg. Buthelezi, who was preparing to take off from Lanseria on the outskirts of the city, agreed to wait. Alas, Johannesburg early morning traffic conspired to delay Okumu’s taxi. When he finally arrived, Buthelezi had decided he could wait no longer and had left. However, the epileptic compass directed them back.

On the 22nd, Richard Dowden’s report makes no mention of the epileptic compass but reports details that other versions don’t. Professor Okumu confronted Buthelezi with harsh words of what the IFP’s continued boycott would signal for a peaceful future.

Jamie Morrison, writing from a Christian evangelical perspective, makes much of the epileptic compass as a “divine intervention” that saved a situation that “was hanging on a thread”. Morrison’s version appeals to Africans because it emphasises that it was a humble African prophet who achieved the breakthrough rather than two famous Western diplomats. However, Morrison omits mention of any prophetic confrontation between Okumu and Buthelezi, only that Okumu brokered a solution. Buthelezi is quoted approvingly: “Said Buthelezi to Okumu when he arrived, ‘You know, my brother, God has brought me back, like Jonah, because now there is something wrong with the plane and it is obvious He wants us to meet.’”

Perhaps, but eliding Dowden’s version with Morrison’s, the prophet was not Buthelezi but Okumu. Buthelezi had been brought back to listen, not to prophesy. Nevertheless at least Buthelezi had the grace to do so.

Whatever metaphysical cause we might invoke to explain the sudden seizure of the compass, the consequent chain of events would be a good illustration of what Morgan Freeman (in the Through The Wormhole Series) terms “retro-causality” – when the future influences actors to make different choices in the present, than they would otherwise have chosen to make.

But the real transformational effect of storytelling happens when “confronting one’s own truths” goes both ways. Truths from the original unsanitised stories of our invariably embarrassing past, as well as truths discerned from the future. The truth of past history imprisons us in determinism. The truth of the future emancipates us to exercise responsible free will. Buthelezi did so.


Photo: 1994 National Ballot.

From the peace activist’s perspective he can relate with the certainty of personal witness what the effect the epileptic compass and the breakthrough that followed had on the mood of the despondent IEC staff. They knew that an election without the IFP was worse than spoiled votes, it was a spoiled election. The news that the IFP was ‘in’ was like a dose of Viagra (although no one used that simile back then. It had not been invented) to infuse the IEC to perform beyond normal limits of stamina to accomplish successive all-nighters sticking the 80 million slips of paper to the bottom margin of 80 million already printed ballot papers. The peace activist has long forgiven Buthelezi’s prior stubbornness. His climb-down spared the activist and his children from having to bear ominous future consequences.

Next, after having trained monitors in the procedures to ensure everyone possible could freely cast their votes, the peace activist found himself redeployed (against the rules strictly speaking) to the Electoral Administration division to go the extra mile. It was a few extra miles. All the way to the middle of the Karoo, to the dusty town of Beaufort West to serve as a “counting officer” (and be monitored by his trainees who would ensure he practiced what he preached).

Beaufort West is to Cape Town what the village of Emmaus was to Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. Chris Zithulele Mann’s poem “The Road to Emmaus” conveys the feeling.

It’s not the friendliest of villages, Emmaus,
the people parochial, as desert people are,
bound up in the herding and bartering of beasts,
the vines on its terraces encumbered with thorns,
the children in the market roasting a sparrow,
hardly the place to expect revelation,
if revelation’s the word – I leave that to you.

Once all possible votes were duly cast, the polls were finally closed and counting commenced. The peace-activist, monitor-trainer turned electoral counting-officer greatly enjoyed the novelty of having Igor, a fastidious international monitor from Russia who had clearly been trained to a much higher standard than the local monitors, mingling with them and sundry party agents to peer over the shoulders of the counting officials to scrutinise the process.

Apartheid propaganda had for decades stereotyped Russians as anti-democratic Soviet ‘communists’. It was already a revelation – in the middle of the Karoo, nogal – to find a punctilious, pedantic, (but polite) ‘Commie’ to ensure the voters were not spoiled of their democratic will by any party over-eager for the spoils of power.

Somewhere anonymous amid the piles of ballots were the peace activists’ own votes, cast in support of the Democratic Party on the national ballot and (just to be fair) for the ANC in the Western Cape provincial ballot.

Because so much blood and sacrifice had been spilled over so many decades in the struggle for the beginning of a non-racial democracy, special attention was paid to examining the spoiled ballots, to see if any ambiguous choices could be condoned. By far the majority of voters had never been enfranchised to vote in an election.

Spoiled ballots helped the IEC assess to what extent the voter education process had worked. A common “error” was for voters to approvingly give their vote to two faces/parties – Nelson Mandela (ANC) and FW de Klerk (National Party): spoiled votes.

When shafts of the rising sun threw long shadows over the empty Karoo landscape the counting process was finally completed. Checks and rechecks done, weary party agents waited anxiously to know how their parties had fared and whether their hopes of taking seats in the new legislatures would be realised. They were not interested in the spoiled votes, except to wish that the silly voters had been reached beforehand to be educated and recruited to their cause.

Before the bags were sealed (only to be opened in the highly unlikely event of a court challenge), the peace activist conscientiously resolved to honour at least one voter who had cast his/her vote with a more inclusive democratic aspiration, but which the system did not recognise or accommodate. When Igor wasn’t looking he took a spoiled ballot and sneaked it out of the hall.

A breeze off the desert entered that moment,
the lamplight flared, a door banged shut.
Emmaus, as I say, we never really go there,
Emmaus comes to us, when least expected.
It’s not just the journey, the settings out,
the routes through the desert, the arrivals,
it’s travelling in readiness for Emmaus that counts.

For twenty years, akin to the tomb of the unknown soldier, the framed ballot paper with two decisive ‘X’s alongside the faces of Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk graces my study wall. They have helped start many a conversation and when my son and daughter became mindful of the interests of future generations, served as a visual aid in a sermon to explain what democracy really means: the casting of votes by people who sometimes spoil their ballots with intent rather than the counting of votes by political parties intent only for the spoils of power. DM

Main photo: A part of 1994 ballot paper.


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