Electoral cynicism and the curse of nane nane

Nane, the Swahili word for the number eight, sounds much like the Shona word for the word better — nani. And yet two voting sessions on August 8 (nane nane), in South Africa and Kenya, served only to make one say “this is Africa” more than once.
And not in a good, pan-African way. More in an injured, 
“I knew they would, but had held on to the hope that they wouldn’t”, way. For writers and “clever blacks”, then, both of which I purportedly am, cynicism is the last defence against heartbreak.

In Kenya, in preparation for August 8, my partner and I stocked candles, bought canned foods and downloaded virtual private networks. If, as the opposition had warned, there was a possibility that there would be power outage or our communication would be cut as happened to friends during the Ugandan elections, we still wanted to be able to see, eat and communicate with the outside world.

In the end it appeared that the opposition may have peddled fake news or the incumbent government decided to kill our cynicism.

I write this a week after nane nane and this is the longest I have had uninterrupted power and wi-fi service in a year. In South Africa, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters parliamentarians, possibly with the assistance of “white monopoly capital”, lobbied ANC MPs to vote with them on the motion of no confidence.

There is something hopeful about middle-class people before elections. It seems we all believe that our position matters and our vote will count. I know I certainly always vote in South African elections and always end up let down. The last time I voted for a winning presidential candidate was in 2004. After those letters two years ago justifying the criticism he got for his presidency, though, I am not sure I chose well. But it was this hope that I think led my neighbour Felix to send me a message for my partner at 2am:

“Ask J whether 4am works,” the text read.

“4am? To go and vote? But the polls open at 6am,” I asked incredulously.

He answered: “But there are already people in line.”

Here is the thing about my neighbour Felix. When he wants to invite us to his home for drinks or any other social event, including voting, he communicates to J and me through me. When he wants gardening equipment, he communicates directly to J. I have concluded it’s because he has seen J cutting grass outside our home and relates to me because the two of us have a mutual friend.

I told J.

“4am?” he laughed. “No way. Tell Felix I am going to vote in the afternoon when there are no queues.”

I passed on the message to Felix.

Later on election morning, we received, like many among our friends, footage of a truck found to have ballot papers in Kwale. We also received texts in which a voter in Nairobi, at 8am, brought attention to her WhatsApp group the fact that her presidential ballot paper was stamped REJECTED even before she had marked it.

The presiding officer of that particular voting station in Embakasi would immediately be dismissed and voters at that station waited patiently as the Independent Electoral Board Commission sent a replacement. Seeing this we decided, naively perhaps, that as Kenyans were clearly vigilant to protect their vote, they would be free and fair.

On the lunchtime bulletin on NTV, the first seeds of real cynicism would be sown in us. At one of the voting stations in Upper Hill, the journalist interviewed some prospective first time voters. They all complained that their names had been expunged from the voters’ roll. “Did you verify whether you were at this voting station?” the journalist enquired. “Yes, I even have my voting card. I tried to talk to the presiding officer but she was very rude,” the first-time voter said, almost in tears.

“What’s your name?” he asked again.

“Moraa,” she answered.

Four other people were interviewed during that news bulletin with the same problem.

Atieno.

Ochieng.

Akello.

Owino.

This may not mean much to a South African reader, but it means a lot to a reader from Kenya. The names are from the western part of the country, a place where the National Super Alliance opposition coalition is strongest against the incumbent Jubilee Party government.

Stereotypes of who a name from a certain part of the country will vote for are so deeply entrenched that, even if the disenfranchised were known to be supporters of the governing party, there would still be some suspicion that they would not vote for who they claim to support.

I walked J to the voting station and, briefly, fear and panic descended on me. Fear because, as we entered his voting station, a truck full of soldiers arrived. My hand tightened in J’s. I almost offered to go back home but then figured we were safer walking together than I was walking back alone. I really need to have a less active imagination.

And I panicked because, initially, we could not find his name on the voters’ roll. “Don’t worry. I have the right name,” he joked. J is from the same ethnic community as the incumbent. Sure enough, he found it with the assistance of one of the soldiers at the gate.

I walked in with him and stood outside his polling station as he voted for the opposition and photographer and activist Boniface Mwangi. Of the people in six different positions he voted for, only one won. J’s winner would also turn out to be the only winner for my neighbour Cathy and her husband.

But those results would come much later than the parliamentary electoral results in South Africa.

In those elections too, my middle-class South African friends without tenders did not get the results we hoped for. What we got was catchy soundbites from the EFF and an Obama-lite speech from DA leader Mmusi Maimane.

In South Africa, as in Kenya, nane nane had not been better for us. So we went back to our cynical middle-class lives. Tomorrow would be another day to give us something to roll our eyes about, even as we secretly hope we would be better.

Zukiswa Wanner is a South African author based in Kenya. She is the winner of the K Sello Duiker award for her novel London Cape Town Joburg

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