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Gary Younge
Vote of the century opens era of hope

First there was water to boil since the rumour had spread that the rightwing AWB might poison Meadowland's main tank. Esther Mwale said 'most people with sense' in Zone 9 were boiling water.

Then, there was the huge pot of mealies - a staple of the township diet - to cook. On Tuesday, Granny had waited seven hours to cast her vote and they had had to bring her dinner while she queued. If there were long delays today, it would be her turn to come to the rescue.

Finally, there were the ID documents to find. No one could say the Mwales were not ready for democracy. As they set off at 7am, joining a human stream of hundreds on the main road, it seemed that all of Zone 9 had the same idea first watch Nelson Mandela cast his vote in Durban on the television and then get down to the polling station at the Maponyane school quickly to beat the rush.

The clientele of Johannes' shebeen (township bar) had discussed this eventuality the night before. At the beginning of the evening, Jacob's solution to avoiding Tuesday's chaos was to get there early. A couple of hours and a few beers later, the prospect of waking up at 5am and queuing for two hours looked increasingly unattractive.

Mzimasi suggested going to vote in a white suburb, where the queues would be shorter, but nobody knew anyone with a car who could take them.

Johannes said he was voting ANC 'for his children'. But nobody else was prepared to say how they would vote. The talk was of logistics, not politics. Nevertheless, the sight of a white woman, who had cast her vote abroad, saying tearfully on television, 'I'm just scared about the future', aroused some fierce emotion.

'What are you scared of? That a black man will run the country,' shouted Mzimasi, slightly blowing his cover.

If Mzimasi was right about the woman's fears, the sight at Maponyane school yesterday morning would have confirmed them. Long queues of black people were waiting to have a say in their country's future. Many had dressed up for the occasion as if they were going to church. Men in suits, hats and clean shoes women with fresh hair-does and wearing more make-up than is usually seen in the township.

After they had solved whatever problems they had had, people queued for about two hours before they could vote. While they waited, they joked, called to friends in other queues and scolded their bored children. Anything, in fact, but talk about politics.

After they had voted, nobody seemed to feel the urge to discuss the deeper significance of the day's events because nothing so obvious was necessary. There was just a keen sense of relief and confident smiles borne from the satisfaction at seeing a job well done. 'It was easy. Just like they have been telling us on the television. I feel good now it's over,' said Esther.

By the time the Mwales had finished voting, the queue was twice as long and Esther chided some of those at the back for being so lazy.

On the way home we saw Jacob, looking the worse for wear and being ribbed by friends at the bus stop. He had woken up late but was insisting he would still make it to the polling booths.

At the shebeen, Johannes had devised a plan to make sure Jacob kept his promise. No beer would be served to people without the white, fluorescent strip on their hand, which proved that they had voted. With a wry smile, he said: 'How can there be a free and fair election if drunk people are going to vote?'

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