What working for the IEC on voting day taught me

The outcome of the most recent municipal elections have officially been announced, and South Africa’s political environment is vastly different from how it was a month ago. While I did not vote in these elections, I did find myself working for the Independent Electoral Commission (The IEC) on voting day. This turned out to be a remarkable experience, and reminded me why I fell in love with politics in the first place.

A friend’s mom was running for the position of ward councillor, and she invited my friends and I to work for the IEC on voting day. Not passing up the opportunity to make some money, the 4 of us said yes. After registering with the IEC and attending a training workshop the week before voting day, we were somewhat prepared for the potentially thousands of people we’d be dealing with that day. We were notified that the voting station we’d be working at was located in a predominantly white, Afrikaans, older neighbourhood. When voting day eventually came around, our day started at 5 am. We had to be at the voting station early enough to welcome the Party Observers and police officials, to set up banners and signs indicating that this was indeed a voting station, as well as setting up chairs in the queue where people could sit and rest while they waited to vote. After getting all of this done and being designated our titles and jobs, we opened the voting station. We did start a minute or two late, but it wasn’t a train smash.

I started off working as a Box Controller, ensuring that voters put their ballots in the correct box after casting their vote. Within the first 5 minutes of working there, an old Afrikaans tannie came up to me, and whispered in my ear “Ek’s so bly om ‘n blanke gesig te sien.” Translation: “I’m so happy to see a white person working here.” I responded with “Thank you for voting and have a nice day.” A few minutes later, the Deputy Presiding Officer moved me from the ballot box to the front desk where I would be working on the Voter’s Roll, eliminating the names of the voters who had pitched that day. The rest of the day went mostly smoothly, with no major incidents. After we closed the voting station, it was time to begin counting the individual votes. This took roughly 6 hours or so as we had to be thorough and recount the votes a number of times. Our day ended at about 3 am the following day. The results of the ward we worked at were predictable enough, without there being any particular upsets or deviation from what had been predicted. We worked for close to 24 hours that day, but it was well worth it, in my view at least.

When we read about the shenanigans that members of the government get up to, we tend to forget that we are the people who put them in that position. And while voting once every few years might seem as if all we’re doing is choosing who is going to rule us for the next few years, we tend to forget that through voting, we have decided that having rulers is an acceptable thing to have. Regarding democracy, there are certain schools of thought arguing that by taking part in the democratic process through voting, no matter if your candidate wins or loses, the fact that you voted is an indication that you accept the outcome. But democracy shouldn’t just be about fulfilling your civil duty once every 5 years.

The reason I enjoyed working for the IEC so much, albeit in a mostly homogenised neighbourhood, was the fact that members of this community came out on voting day to engage in politics. People decided that a change in leadership is needed, and took the opportunity to change their circumstances. On that day, I saw a community engage with politics in a way that inspired me. Community engagement, especially in the more suburban areas of Pretoria, is very limited. We don’t have community forums or community centres where we engage in dialogue, or highlight community issues. Our walls are high, and our neighbours are strangers. So, to see over 2000 people engaged was quite a sight.

And then I realised, the only time we come together as a community is to vote. Every day we are presented with opportunities to engage with our communities, but either it’s taken for granted, or it is ignored. We try to live our lives for ourselves, trying to get by from day to day. We shy away from getting involved, for whatever reasons. And when I see a community coming together to engage in politics, I can’t help but wonder why this doesn’t happen more often. Why can’t we have spaces where we engage as a community, where we get to know the people we live around, and why don’t we want to engage like this? We have the capacity, and I want to see more community engagement projects, because engagement on this level is beautiful to see, and wholly satisfying.

I have made plans to ensure that I work for the IEC again whenever an opportunity presents itself, and I have attempted to think about the kind of community engagement projects I would like to see in my neighbourhood at least. There is a definite need for these kinds of projects, and I commend anyone who is able put one into practice.