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S. Africans in All Their Diversity Vote in Historic Polls


It takes three people to carry 89-year-old Johanna Kantwane into the polling station at Jacobsdal, in the west of South Africa's Free State province.

"I am dying, but I still carry some weight!" she says loudly, to the obvious amusement of Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) staff inside.

"I got the stroke three years ago. Since then, I have been unable to walk," Kantwane says, seated on a bench while IEC officials confirm that her name appears on the voter's roll.

"I can't walk, but this election is too important for me to miss," the old woman whispers, resting firmly on her kierie (walking stick).

Kantwane's determination is indicative of the enthusiasm with which millions of South Africans have approached this election. Gone is the apathy that seemed to characterize the country's polls after the honeymoon period of Nelson Mandela's rule following South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994.

"I am voting for the better home, for the better future for all my children," Kantwane says, emerging into the sunlight outside the Jacobsdal town hall. Then she adds, "Maybe I will be dead soon. Maybe I will never see the improvements I hope to see. But I vote for the future of South Africa. That is what makes my soul rest."

White and black voters-to-be and a clutch of grey-and-blue uniformed policemen protecting the venue, their firearms at the ready, respectfully make way for Kantwane, as her helpers load her into the back seat of a waiting vehicle.

In the Free State province, supporters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) have been the most vociferous, arriving near polling stations screaming their support from megaphones and loudly broadcasting anti-apartheid songs, while dancing and berating "conspirators."

But, unlike during previous elections, when anti-ANC elements frequently became involved in heated verbal exchanges with ruling party faithful that required police intervention, tolerance is now the order of the day.

"South Africa has changed a lot," says young, white Freedom Front supporter Storm Parker. "Even though I am a conservative, white Afrikaner who is anti-abortion and anti-corruption, I still believe there is a place for all in South Africa…. Even ANC!" she laughs.

Such sentiments were unheard of just a few years ago among conservative white South Africans.

Meanwhile, at the windswept township of Dithlake, on the outskirts of Koffiefontein (Coffee Fountain), about 30 miles from Jacobsdal, a voter who's very different from Kantwane is talking about the future of his homeland. Across his shirt is pasted the image of the ANC president and the ruling party's presidential candidate, Jacob Zuma.

"Umshini wam! Umshini Wam!" Jan Nortje sings, referencing Zuma's anti-apartheid theme song, "Bring me my machine gun."

But Nortje isn't like most ANC voters in the Free State. For one, he's a mere 18 years of age. Secondly, he's white.

Nortje says he supports Zuma because of "just one reason. I love the man. I like him because he cares about poor people like me."

A little boy, "the son of my father's domestic servant," Nortje tells VOA, accompanies him as he votes for the first time in his life, his spiked hair ruffled by a strong and cold wind.

The young man emerges beaming from the IEC's tent set up in the middle of a dusty soccer field.

"All I can say, Sir," Nortje says, waving his ANC flags, "is that this is a wonderful country. I feel like I am a person today. I feel like I am worth something."

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