Johannesburg - When Dr Brigalia Bam was interviewed by an international newspaper five days before the first democratic elections in 1994, her exact words were: “We are approaching a great hour. It will be the hour of liberation.”
Twenty years later, on the eve of Freedom Day celebrations and South Africa’s fifth national democratic elections, the feisty and opinionated leader’s sentiments have not changed much.
“Voting is a wonderful day where every human being in this country – urban or rural, illiterate or academic – is equal. It all makes us people who belong to the same,” says Bam, now 81.
In 1994, Bam, through the SA Council of Churches, lent much- needed support to the electoral commission of the day, led by Judge Johann Kriegler, to ensure a peaceful and fair election.
Five years later she would be chosen as Kriegler’s successor.
But her time leading up to that point was one which she describes as being like no other – a remarkable time in South Africa’s history.
Bam says the Council of Churches was an obvious choice to help the commission because of the work it did preventing violence between 1990 and 1994 after Nelson Mandela’s release.
“We were a very, very key agency during the time of the elections because we had human power, the network and the knowledge. The staff had a lot of skill with voter education, so we became very, very involved.”
Talking about the days that led to democracy in South Africa, Bam’s eyes light up.
“On the 25th, 26th and 27th of April 1994, like every South African, I was everywhere. We were assisting the electoral commission, still very nervous about violence.
“I was doing something like 15 stations, mostly in the hostels. I think of that day and I cannot believe it. I was all over the place.”
Bam describes the 1994 elections as “the liberation elections”.
“It was such joy. We didn’t worry about the law as long as you can get a card and vote. It was a great hour. Something was happening to South Africans which is not measurable. You can’t measure joy of the affirmation of your dignity.”
Bam’s eyes pinch together and a smile crawls across her face as she gets flashbacks of different scenes that stand out in her memory.
She remembers a moment when a decision had just been made that Inkatha Freedom Party members could vote.
Until that point, endemic running battles between Inkatha members living in the hostels and ANC supporters in the township had cost hundreds their lives.
Bam had been part of the team working in the hostels in the Vaal.
Accompanied by her younger brother – the late Judge Fikile Bam – at his insistence, she would go into the East Rand hostels. “All the hostels had Inkatha members and we were going into them. Before we couldn’t go. But then we had to tell them about the voting. They didn’t know where to vote.”
At the time the council of churches was helping to set up voting stations. She gives off a hearty chuckle at the thought.
“Then, voting stations were not as legislated as they are now. There would just be a voting station here,” she says waving a hand in the air.
“We had to find anyone who was willing to help. We didn’t have time to train as we do now. All these years we had to train people for such a long time to manage a station.
“In 1994 I placed hundreds of people who were learning at the voting station. My goodness gracious. It’s amazing, the human spirit.”
Another fond memory, on the day of elections, Bam and other volunteers were forced to do voter education in the lines leading to the polling station, even though it was against the law.
“A representative of the party, standing in the line, would explain to the members to place an X on the ballot paper and that would create a crisis. Why did it have to be an X. No, no, no, no,” she chuckles.
Another crisis was arriving at a voting station to find that the lines to get voting cards were longer than the lines to vote. Photographers were needed urgently to take pictures for the cards and dozens of calls had to be made.
The stories are endless.
Thinking back, Bam remembers how the mood in the country had changed by April 26, 1994.
“There had generally been a lot of hope around the peace accord. The churches were working in numbers so that on the day of elections itself we might be able to make a breakthrough.
“And thanks to the political parties in this country, thanks to the ANC, the IFP, the military and the police, there was no violence.”
Bam says the years that followed the initial election were not the same for her.
“They were years of joy and lots of anxiety but also the greatest test for the nation that there should be no electoral violence.”
Elections that followed have always remained an area of worry and anxiety of violence. To date there have always been hot spots, like pockets of KwaZulu-Natal.
Bam dismisses talk of voter apathy.
South Africans have grabbed the opportunity to create political parties, she says, joking that had she been younger, she would have started her own political party – one for women.
“I think the terrain is very competitive. But it’s very good for the ruling party also not to be in a comfort zone, to enter into competition with other parties. That is what democracy is all about.
“If the ruling party was over confident, then it would mean there is a weakness in our democracy. I think it’s healthy that everybody is on the line and trying their best to really promise a better South Africa,” says Bam.
Looking back over 20 years, Bam says she is amazed at what has happened in building a nation.
“In trying to be a nation, challenged by the social cohesion, intellectualising the good things about our diversity, we still find it difficult to experience the diversity and celebrate it. We say we are a rainbow nation, but truly speaking it’s a struggle for us to celebrate it.”
This, says Bam, is something that still needs to be worked on.
“There is still subtle racism and we have to deal with it. What has disappeared is the legalised racism, the blatant discrimination.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
“We celebrate Parliament. We celebrate our recognition of creating these wonderful institutions which we are part of and they work. We celebrate even with the struggles with affirmative action. It might not work overnight, but it’s a given.
“When people talk about the 20-year achievement, we have to talk about employment, which is a crisis for us.
“I come from a rural area. I grew up in a village and I worked with women who had to go and fetch water in buckets on their heads. I go back and I see today the same places I was in, now have electricity. It’s not every village, but I see the change.”
Today you can go anywhere without being humiliated, and suffering the emotional scarring that so many people still have, says Bam.
“Physical scars can be treated but the healing process of individuals takes time. You can heal a nation as it was for us, (the elections) was a healing hour. It was an hour of joy and healing.”
With 10 days before the next ballot, Bam’s advice to South Africans is simple: “Go and exercise your right. Voting is a fundamental right, you are not doing it for anybody. It is a recognition that you belong to this country and you have a right to decide who is going to govern you. It is an expression of something so fundamental as participating in a democratic country.”
Despite retiring three years ago, the operations around the electoral commission are still clearly pumping through Bam’s veins.
She is reluctant to speak about the circumstances around current IEC chairwoman Pansy Tlakula.
Tlakula is fighting an application in the Electoral Court to have her removed as chairwoman.
Five parties – the UDM, ACDP, Cope, AgangSA and the Economic Freedom Fighters want her to resign after Public Protector Thuli Madonsela implicated her in a lease scandal around the commission’s head office.