The village girl who became the mother of SA elections

28 June 2015 - 02:00 By Brigalia Bam

I was driving to Sebokeng, south of Johannesburg, for an IEC [Independent Electoral Commission] public voter education meeting on the morning of February 19 1999 when president Nelson Mandela called. In a typical Madiba deep voice he said: "Hello Hlophe. This is Nelson. You remember I asked you to act as chairperson of the IEC when Judge [Johann] Kriegler resigned?"I just want to let you know that in just 15 minutes, I will be announcing to the nation that I have appointed you chairperson of the IEC of South Africa," he said before he hung up.mini_story_image_vleft1He never asked me to comment, confirm my interest or decline. In fact, the president made it clear he was not giving me an option, but simply wanted to inform me that I was now in charge of the IEC. And thus ended my job as deputy chairperson to Judge Kriegler and began my 12-year journey as the chairperson of the commission. So in a way I was expecting the announcement. I was also aware that the panel headed by the late Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson had recommended me to chair the IEC.The chief justice was not keen on having a judge of the Constitutional Court chairing the IEC. He felt that sooner or later the court would have to handle a case involving the IEC and it would have been very awkward for the chairperson of the IEC to at the same time adjudicate the dispute.During the interview for commissioners, Justice Chaskalson had emphasised that the IEC should be totally independent so that it is not under any influence of any party, nor any political patronage of any kind.For some reason I was not very excited. Staff morale had been very low at the IEC with the sudden resignation of Judge Kriegler. At the same time, the media was still reporting about the judge's resignation. There was also a feeling that I had not supported Judge Kriegler's fight over the institution's budget. Kriegler had resigned almost a month earlier, on February 1, over disagreements with the government regarding what he considered as poor funding, and what he termed lack of independence of the IEC and the controversial requirement for bar-coded IDs for voters.Kriegler, a charismatic, no-nonsense judge, had expressed his views that it would be impossible to conduct an election on a R550-million budget. He had wanted twice as much. He also warned of the ominous spectre of thousands of black youths arriving at voting stations on election day, but having to be turned away as a result of government's insistence on bar-coded identity documents.The new IDs were introduced a few years earlier and their bar codes and other safety measures were regarded by the government as the safest form of identification. To some, the resignation of Kriegler and my appointment cast doubts on the independence, autonomy and capability of the IEC to run free and fair elections. They just did not buy the story that everything is nice and rosy, otherwise the judge would not have resigned.For example, the Freedom Front said in a statement that they would have preferred it if the new head of the IEC was a judge. Party spokesman Pieter Mulder said my past work as secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches also brought my political independence into question.block_quotes_start For a long time I never knew there was a relationship brewing between him and Winnie. They were very discreet block_quotes_endThere were a few months left before the 1999 elections. I had to stop on the side of the road so that I could hear the radio announcement properly. I continued with my trip to Sebokeng, now thinking about the challenges I was facing, which included the short time remaining before the election. I also had to think about how to deal with staff morale and how I was going to mend relations with the government - the same government I was going to depend on to run the elections.The other challenge was my gender: as a woman I was going to run an organisation which is responsible for entrenching democracy. I had never heard of a woman chairing an electoral commission anywhere in the world. Despite my record at the World Council of Churches, I was concerned by the male-dominated political parties.Among the many congratulations I received, there was an interesting comment from the corridors of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. According to Saki Macozoma, who was attending, apparently some delegates did not take it kindly that president Mandela "had appointed a brigadier" to head an electoral commission. They had obviously misunderstood my name, Brigalia, for a brigadier. Saki took it upon himself to correct them.My relationship with Madiba had come a long way. I had known him since 1955. I met him in Johannesburg when I was a student at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work. In my first year I got to know Winnie Madikizela and Marcia Finca, who were in their second year but who were from my part of the world (the Transkei). They welcomed me as a "home girl" and we became friends. They showed me the ways of Joburg. One day, Winnie invited us to go with her to certain lawyers' offices in town. Oliver Tambo was from her town in the Transkei, Bizana, and she wanted to pay him a courtesy call.story_article_right1Buti (brother) Oliver Tambo received us warmly but seemed very reserved. Then in walked this tall, rather attractive person with a very fashionable parting in his hair. We all looked at him. He wanted to know who we were and where we came from, and offered us tea. We were feeling coy and shy. We ate lemon cream biscuits - the first time I had tasted them as I couldn't afford them! We were fascinated with that name: Rolihlahla. We never called him Nelson. He was Buti Rolihlahla.Occasionally Buti Rolihlahla would come and visit us at our hostel in Jeppe Street. It was the hostel where Adelaide Tambo had lived. He always visited all three of us, Winnie, Marcia and myself. We never suspected until much later that there was a bigger reason than the three of us for his visits. For a long time I never knew there was a relationship brewing between him and Winnie. They were very discreet.Madiba knew my sister, Nondyebo Jane, who was a nurse at Baragwanath Hospital. She was active in politics. Occasionally I would meet him at my sister's place.In 1956, Madiba introduced me to advocate Duma Nokwe (the first black advocate in South Africa). I didn't quite understand at the time how important he was in the legal fraternity. Madiba asked him to give me a lift back to the hostel. I was to meet Duma Nokwe again when I was in exile in Geneva in 1969. I felt an almost moral obligation to take care of him.We would always talk about Rolihlahla. My late brother Fikile was on Robben Island with Mandela at that time. I visited Robben Island. My brother gave me a coded message that Rolihlahla wanted me to take to Chief Sabata Dalindyebo in the Transkei. I was very anxious about fulfilling the request Mandela had made. His mother had passed away and he wanted the chief to apply for him to be granted special leave to visit his mother's grave. All our conversations on the Island were recorded.mini_story_image_hleft2I remember leaving feeling sick with worry. I had to travel to the Transkei - and then the chief didn't want to meet me! He was suspicious because he did not know how to manage the security police and informers. Dr Don Luswazi finally introduced me to the chief. He had to clear my name!The International Red Cross had started visiting Robben Island. When their representative came back to Geneva, he would bring greetings from my brother and Mandela - and I would then have to convey special greetings to Oliver Tambo in London from Mandela. We used codes to communicate. Our code with Tambo was "Holy Cross Mission". This is a mission in Flagstaff where Tambo went to school. I had also gone to the same school. Holy Cross was Mandela's name and we referred to him in Xhosa as "umnqamlezo", meaning a cross.When I was appointed chair of the IEC, Herbert Vilakazi, an IEC commissioner, became vice-chairman. Judge Ismail Hussain, Thoko Mpumlwana and Fanie "SS" van der Merwe were also commissioners.In a congratulatory letter to me, Mulder said: "The post of chairperson is so important that only a judge with a non-controversial history deserves to fill it." He wished me strength for "an impossible task".Here I was, from my simple beginnings in Goqwana village in Tsolo, Eastern Cape, my work experience from around the world to my position as mother of South African elections. My task was to ensure that democracy is felt at each and every corner of South Africa and in many other countries.When I assumed my positionat the IEC, all my childhood struggles, including my participation in the Defiance Campaign, stood me in good stead ... In my life, I have always used my village as a yardstick. "If this works in Goqwana, it will work anywhere.""Democracy: More than just elections" (KMM Review Publishing, R249.95) will be available from Friday

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