Jacket Notes: Nick Dall and Matthew Blackman on writing ‘Spoilt Ballots’

04 April 2022 - 10:26
The Elections that Shaped South Africa, from Shaka to Cyril.
Image: Supplied Spoilt Ballots The Elections that Shaped South Africa, from Shaka to Cyril.

While writing our previous book, Rogues’ Gallery, a catalogue of 350 years of corruption in SA, we came across several tales of electoral corruption and thought these might be worth looking into. We always knew, however, that writing Spoilt Ballots would be about more than just regular financial corruption. It would also be about the inherently corrupt act of keeping the vast majority of the people of SA away from the ballot box for centuries.

We knew that we needed to cover the major electoral moments in SA’s history: 1910, 1924, 1948 and 1994. But we wanted to tell the story of more than just that. The book became not just an overview of South African history but also, we think, an attempt to show just how things can fall apart when bad decisions compound.

Elections are about change. Politicians like to tell you that they are about change for the better. But in SA this hardly seems to have been the case. As opposition leader Frederik van Zyl Slabbert once said of PW Botha’s planned constitutional reforms: “When you are in a dark tunnel a step towards the light can be very nice — except if that light is the light of an oncoming train.”

Co-author of ‘Spoilt Ballots’.
Image: Supplied Nick Dall Co-author of ‘Spoilt Ballots’.

At each key election — starting with Shaka (you’ll have to read the book to understand what he has to do with elections) and ending with Cyril Ramaphosa — South Africans saw a need for change. But this change typically came with a cost or at least a sting in the tail.

What is so surprising about SA’s democracy is that we got off to an astonishingly liberal start. A man by the name of John Fairbairn, the creator and defender of SA’s free press and a staunch anti-slavery activist, managed to cajole the colonial government into allowing men of all races to vote in the Cape Colony’s very first election in 1854 (provided they owned property worth at least £25 — a low threshold, even then). As the drafter of the Cape’s first constitution, William Porter, put it (in the language of the time): “I would rather meet the Hottentot (sic) at the hustings voting for his representative, than meet the Hottentot in the wilds with his gun on his shoulder.”

This liberal Cape constitution would last 38 years until Cecil John Rhodes attacked it with the Franchise and Ballot Act of 1892, which raised the voting qualification beyond reach of many people of colour. Six years later Rhodes would run perhaps the most corrupt electoral campaign ever held in SA. We say “perhaps” because Paul Kruger in 1893 and the ANC at Nasrec in 2017, gave Rhodes some pretty stiff competition in showing how democracy can be bought.

Co-author of ‘Spoilt Ballots’.
Image: Supplied Matthew Blackman Co-author of ‘Spoilt Ballots’.

Shocking though this all was, it was — sadly — not surprising. What did surprise us about our electoral history was the sheer number of decent people of all races who fought the good fight. What also jumped out was the humour that many of these men and women used to defeat or rile their enemies. Our country’s elections have often been filled with light moments that in many ways defy our often tragic history — and more than justified our decision to write a funny book about a morbid topic. Placards, cartoons, speeches and even poems have communicated disdain and irreverence in the face of deeply oppressive forms of government. As Desmond Tutu famously said “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said: ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”

Spoilt Ballots: The Elections that Shaped South Africa, from Shaka to Cyril by Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall is published by Penguin Random House.