Saturday, May 30, 2009

Elections 2009... Karoo-style

- Barbara Castle-Farmer -

I was infused with a burgeoning sense of patriotism in the run-up to the recent elections. So much so that I volunteered my services to the IEC. And, after a number of interviews with the enthusiastic Ismarelda Gallant, was offered the position of Deputy Presiding Officer at one of the eight Voting Stations in our district.

Training included a 2-day workshop at a local town hall. This and all subsequent workshops were conducted in Afrikaans, the mother tongue of all the delegates except me – and mine was the only white face there.

The workshop was intensive and I realised what a huge amount of planning goes into running an election that is both free and fair. We were each given a manual entitled IEC Election Guide and encouraged to familiarise ourselves with all 142 pages. It dealt in detail with the secrecy of the ballot (before, during and after), using the Zip-Zip and dealing with objections on Election Day, the counting process, party agents, and more.

My assigned station was Drie Riviere Farm Shed on the Luttig’s farm about 10km out of Prince Albert. We had around 279 registered voters, most of whom were farm workers from the surrounding area. A team of seven IEC officials was required for this little station on Voting Day.

Turning up at 7:00am outside the IEC office on that first morning of the Special Votes days, I was greeted in the semi-dark by the tireless Dulcie Claassen whose job it was to ensure that each of our eight Voting Stations received their allotted material for the day. This included pens, string, elastic bands, envelopes, gloves and tissues for the ‘inkers,’ stamps and stamp pads, black plastic bags to collect rubbish, scrap paper, and loads more. It was also her duty on the three voting days to ensure that the ballot boxes from each station, escorted by the Police Service, were secured overnight in a safe in the Town’s Municipal Offices.

Our team on the two Special Votes days comprised just four – Henry Piedt, the Presiding Officer (PO), two Electoral Officials (Lynette Claassen and Jeffrey Armoed) and me. Henry, thankfully, was calm and confident having worked for the IEC in earlier elections.

We packed my bakkie with various materials – cardboard direction signs, waterproof banners, flat-packed election booths, ballot boxes, tape and more – and got into our cars to await the police escort. I must confess to feeling hugely intimidated and out of my depth teamed with colleagues who all seemed to know exactly what they were doing. I so did not want to appear a complete ‘wally’ in the midst of my entirely competent team.

Our escort, of two police officers on scrambler motorbikes, wearing full uniform and with bulging backpacks, roared up and we set off in convoy along the dirt road that was to take us to our voting station in the heart of the Great Karoo. I presumed the backpacks were full of “SAPS stuff” like bulletproofed vests, weapons, truncheons, etc. It was only later that I discovered they contained the police officers’ packed lunches, biscuits, flasks, vats of cooldrink and sandwiches. All of which made my little bottle of flavoured water, two peanut butter sandwiches and a banana look rather naive.

The Luttigs had already had one of the farm sheds cleaned out for us. It was comfortable, with a cement floor, ostrich egg light fittings, farm implements stacked neatly in one corner, sturdy tables, riempie-seated chairs, an ancient Dover-stove and leather harnesses along one wall.

My first job was to assist Lynette in securing signs on the farm outbuildings pointing the way to our voting station. Meanwhile the effervescent Jeffrey with a couple of deft flicks, folds and clicks expertly constructed three sturdy voting booths. And our PO set about organising his area and writing up his Election Diary -- every PO’s ‘bible.’ It sets out, step-by-step, a myriad tasks from the layout of the Voting Station, staffing and security to writing up the ballot paper statement and managing the many security seals.

Visually impaired South Africans would be casting their votes secretly for the first time using a Braille ballot template, South Africa being the second country, after Japan, to produce the model. One of our three voting booths was broader, with a lower voting table, to accommodate this new option.

Things were very quiet during both Special Votes days but I was grateful for the extra time and on-the-job experience prior to the actual voting day.

On the 22nd we reported at the Municipal Office by 5.15am. Fresh material was checked and crosschecked, ballot papers were made secure and ballot boxes escorted with reverence. Our team swelled to seven and a Morning Prayer was delivered with humility. Then we all took up our stations and were at the ready when the first farmer drove up with a bakkie-full of voters at 7.00am sharp.

During the rest of that day, for much of the time, I wished that fat cat MPs could have visited our little farm shed. It was humbling to see the hope in the eyes of the poorest of the poor. It was overwhelming to see the wariness in the eyes of the halt, the lame and those who could not read. It was heart wrenching to see the bewilderment of those charged with looking after sheep or ostriches or fruit trees when faced with those lengthy ballot papers.

What did the elderly lady, with slippers and walking stick care, know or need to know about the Women Forward Party or the Keep It Straight and Simple Party? All she wanted was to be taken care of in her final years, to be warm in the bitter cold of a Karoo winter and perhaps have at least one good meal a day.

Thankfully I can report that there was no trouble of any sort at our little farm shed Voting Station... apart from a flock of ostrich chicks that pushed over their fence and ran into the designated voting area. Of course they weren’t old enough to vote and so had to be rounded up amid much squawking and flapping and returned to their pen -- voteless.

Apart from that little fracas there was only care and kindness from my colleagues for the elderly, the bewildered and the over-awed. It was a privilege to have served my country with the likes of them.

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