Today, 369 years ago, Jan van Riebeeck arrived in Table Bay and shouted, “Finders, keepers!” And that’s why it became known as Founders Day.
Alhough the Khoikhoi and San were taking decisions by consensus long before the Dutch navigator sashayed onto our shores in 1652, it was really the Europeans who brought the concept of modern democracy to South Africa. They also brought syphilis, guns, racism and Christianity, but we shall stick with democracy for now.
The very first ballot took place aboard the Drommedaris when the passengers and crew voted, through a show of hands and a fair amount of crying and screaming, to go back to Holland. “This looks nothing like the brochures!” they wailed. “Where are the quaint fish markets? The cycling paths? Where are the coffee shops and the dimpled harlots?”
Van Riebeeck said it was his boat and he would land wherever he damn well pleased, an attitude that gained in popularity as the Dutch settlers slowly mutated into Afrikaners.
In the years leading up to 1910, the British, the Zulus and the Boers had a whale of a time slaughtering one another. It was all fun and games until someone lost an eye and the British said they didn’t want to play any more.
“Here’s what we are going to do, chaps. We are going to let you become a self-governing dominion of the British Empire.” The Boers scratched their heads. Isn’t that where the British played dominoes? The Zulus heard about the plan last Thursday.
So it came to pass that General Louis Botha was elected South Africa’s first prime minister. Even though he fought like a tiger during the Boer War, he retained a soft spot for a girl who later insisted on being called Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom, the Union of South Africa and Her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.
As one of only three or four Boers who had ever been to London, Botha earned a reputation as something of a Brit-boetie, which was almost as bad as being seen kissing a darkie.
In 1947, King George VI popped in at the Royal Cape for a round of golf and a stern word with the Bantu. The following year, the National Party was voted into power and it was a long, long time before anyone from Buckingham Palace came near us again.
“Who are those dreadful people?” the king asked over a cup of Earl Grey beneath the royal gazebo at Balmoral. “They are called Afrikaners, daddy,” said Liz. “Rather like the Dutch, but a little more, shall we say, déclassé?”
But let us not get ahead of ourselves. On 15 September, 1910, people of a Caucasian persuasion came out in their thousands to vote in the first general election. The darkies thought the whiteys were leaving and spontaneous, yet hopelessly premature, celebrations broke out in the native yards.
Three main parties and a smattering of independents vied for 121 seats in the country’s first parliament. Nearly 105 years later, the number of parties fighting to get their snouts into the national trough has quadrupled. Parliament is also much bigger, but then so are its members.
Back then, elections were held every two, three or five years, depending on public transport and the calving season.
In 1915, the National Party made its first appearance on the ballot, as did the Socialist Party, which scared everyone by scooping 140 votes.
The Nats took ’24, ’29 and ’33 while 1938 was a huge year for the Socialist Party. Back on the ballot after a well-earned 13-year break, they took their first seat and predicted that by the end of the year everyone would be driving Ladas and calling each other comrade.
South Africa’s place in the world was well and truly secured in 1948, when National Party leader DF Malan (who later retired and became an airport) released a visionary manifesto supporting the prohibition of mixed marriages, the banning of black trade unions and job reservation for whites.
Thick, hairy clumps of farmers, their barefoot wives, wagon-mechanic sons and child-bearing daughters voted overwhelmingly for Malan – and the National Party remained resolutely in power until 1994. Good one, guys. Mooi skoot.
1960 was a particularly memorable year. A regular carnival. The mielies were fat, the lambs were healthy, the ANC was banned, there was a massacre in Sharpeville, a state of emergency was declared, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd was shot and wounded and 850 000 white people voted in favour of cutting ties with Britain and then spent the next 35 years playing ‘international’ rugby fixtures against neighbouring towns, travelling ‘abroad’ to Margate and reading the Bible, the only book approved by the censorship board.
Soon after the Republic of Skunks and Polecats was formed, an aberration called the Progressive Party appeared on the ballot sheet. The party was so popular that by 1974 they had wracked up an impressive six seats in parliament. The NP, with 122 seats, shook with fear. Okay, so it might have been laughter.
Beginning to suspect that not everyone in the country was deliriously happy with existing political arrangements, the government held a whites-only referendum in 1983 to gauge support for the creation of a tricameral parliament that would allow coloureds and Indians to have a say in their own affairs, on condition that they tucked their shirts in and smoked their zol in the parking lot.
Meddling foreigners pointed out that the government had forgotten to include 23 million black people in the referendum. “What?” shouted PW Botha. “You lie, you bliksems. There’s nobody here by that name.”
By 1989 you couldn’t walk down the street without a bomb going off. It all became a bit much for Botha, sensitive man that he was. He had a stroke – a stroke of good luck for most – and was strong-armed out of the presidency.
The last all-white election took place in 1989. Feeling the winds of change hot against their necks, voters threw their weight behind the Democratic Party and … oops, wrong fairy tale. Here’s what really happened. A solid 80% of just over two million ballots were cast for the National Party, the Conservative Party and the Herstigte Nasionale Party combined. That’s how thrilled white people were at the prospect of a new society based on justice and equality for all. The Democratic Party limped in with 33 seats.
The country’s last white president pocketed a Nobel Peace Prize by unbanning the ANC and releasing Nelson Mandela. Then he threatened to sue the Truth and Reconciliation Commission if it implicated him in apartheid crimes and repaid one of the NP’s main financial backers by sleeping with his wife. Good man, that de Klerk.
Needless to say, 1994 was the mother of all elections. For the first time, black people were allowed to vote. The ANC swept into power and, oddly enough, failed to nationalise the mines, torch the churches and eat our children.
And so here we are today. The state has been hollowed out by hundreds if not thousands of human termites, leaving behind an economy that belongs in calipers. Our parliament of whores is a national embarrassment. We have a president who is surrounded by more double-crossing back-stabbers than Julius Caesar ever was. And there are white supremacists out there who still believe they are god’s chosen people.