I shall be voting today. I shall toddle down to the Episcopal church hall in my town, once described by Washington Post writer Hank Burchard as “a hotbed of social rest.”
Polling place volunteers will check my ID, and apologize for so doing. All very civilized, like a Norman Rockwell painting. None of the ugliness of the campaign will penetrate the faux England of the Virginia Hunt Country.
A wretch like myself, though, will wonder which of our billionaires, so decorously standing in line with farmhands and exurbanites, gave big money for attack ads or whether one of the nice lawyers, with his multimillion-dollar, class-action practice, has paid to have a politician’s private life made public.
Yet, when it comes to voting, my cynicism is contained. I carry the scars of failed democracy, but my passion for voting is undimmed.
It all goes back to the late 1950s, when I was a wild-eyed teenaged reformer—is there another kind? The place was Southern Rhodesia and the issue was white minority rule.
We, the wild-eyed, had an almost messianic faith in the curative powers of voting. We even believed that democracy in Africa would be more gentlemanly and idealistic than it was in Europe or America. Oddly, this belief later affected liberal American newspaper columnists like Meg Greenfield of The Washington Post and Anthony Lewis of The New York Times.
Our belief, naive and well-meaning, was that without the old colonial restrictions, stronger, better societies would rise in Africa than had existed in the rest of the world. Our belief was akin to that of Jews who had high hopes that the State of Israel, informed by the suffering of European Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, would produce a kinder, gentler nation than the world had yet seen.
In looking back the odd thing is how kind and gentle, though skewed to the whites, Southern Rhodesia was. There was little crime, no measurable social unrest, but a profound sense that things would change for the better when one man, one vote was the law of the land.
Democracy was the balm and elixir that would move Africa to Winston Churchill’s “sunlit uplands.”
In 1980, after a brutal civil war, Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, got its vote. It was rigged from the beginning, and Robert Mugabe began to lay waste what had been literally and figuratively a sunlit upland.
His first action was one of genocide in the southern part of the country, called Matabeleland. Mugabe’s troops killed an estimated 25,000 people who, being of a different tribal grouping, had had the temerity to vote against him in the first free election.
The new reality of African democracy was “one man, one vote, once.”
Even so, the idealists clung to their hopes. As late as 1996, the dwindling white minority was still hopeful. At that point in time, they had not suffered direct reprisals; Mugabe’s evolving hatred of the white minority had not been seen. It soon would, with seizure of the farms and later businesses.
Zimbabwe elections lost all validity with intimidation, violence and phony prosecutions. Yet the people voted even if they risked brutality for doing so. They had signed on to the hope implicit in voting.
Sadly, democracy elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, excluding Botswana and South Africa, also failed awfully in Uganda under Idi Amin and foolishly in Zambia under Kenneth Kaunda. Democracy had become a contrivance to set up a dictatorship.
We, the boy soldiers of democracy marching around Salisbury, the Southern Rhodesian capital, with placards, did not understand that democracy is learned and it thrives only where it is husbanded by the voters and protected by a phalanx of independent institutions.
We were not alone in not seeing this. Neither, by the way, did the British, French and Portuguese governments. Neither, one fears, did the advocates for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
So, get out there and vote. Cherish the moment. You will not get a gun butt against your head outside the polling place.