My friend Yolande knows where all the good parties are, which blues records are worth listening to, all the best ways to keep a 7-year-old amused on a rainy Saturday afternoon. She's the kind of person who looks as at-home at a scruffy rockabilly gig as she does at a high-style cocktail bar. She lives in a leather jacket; she works as a manager at the best bakery in town. Yolande is also an emigre from South Africa, and a few weeks ago she went to the South African Consulate in Beverly Hills to vote.
"I've never voted before," Yolande says, "except for a yes-or-no apartheid referendum almost 10 years ago. It never felt right to vote before. My parents and I never discuss politics together, especially at the $2 per minute a long-distance call costs now.
"When I got to the consulate about 6, everyone there was in kind of a party mood, but I could hardly feel part of it, my knees were shaking so hard--this election is what I had wanted so badly. The crowd at the consulate was mixed, mostly white, but with a sprinkling of blacks, Asians and even Orthodox Jewish people in their beards and their hats, which you hardly ever see in South Africa. A large group of people were laughing and were videotaping everyone, and it was wild to look around and see all my South African friends at once.
"There were a bunch of tables all set up and a policeman there to keep everyone in line. First, they checked our hands under an ultraviolet light; then they smeared ink on our hands and checked our South African documents. After that, they had us gather five or six at a time around a table, where they explained what the first ballot was for--that was the presidential one; we stood around a different table and got a different ballot for the state races--and stamped a paper for each of us.
"My friends and I were shaking like leaves: Finally, it was happening. And you probably can't understand it if you haven't lived in South Africa, but this was one of the most serious moments in our lives--alone in the voting booth with just a ballot and a sharp pencil. It was so overwhelming, and so strange to be so far from our country.
"I don't know if you've seen the voting papers, but they were beautiful, very colorful, with a bright flag next to each party's name on the ballot, and a photograph of each candidate next to that. It was really hard to vote, because there were so many parties to choose from. One of the parties in Natal, where I'm from, is led by a very cool Rastafarian, so my dad had said he was going to vote for that guy because he wanted to grow his own pot. My dad is kind of a comedian.
"I left the country for a lot of reasons, political ones mostly, but the hardest thing there was to work alongside people who couldn't comprehend sharing anything with people who were black. In South Africa, most of my friends were pretty left wing. I was questioned by police there because of my friends, and because of those incidents, I think, I felt a little bit more what was really going on in the country. I've had to educate a lot of my South African friends in Los Angeles.
"Finally, when I go back, I hope to see a country that looks more like Africa--people everywhere, instead of these empty, all-white cities with pretty gardens and clean streets. You know, what's interesting is to think of looking back in 50 years and seeing that this thing existed where a certain group of white people thought it was their God-given right to lead the country. We're finally going to get some soul into those cities.
"And after I'd handed in the second ballot, all I could think about was going out for tea with my friends somewhere and talking about what we'd done."