Election Ghosts

Election Ghosts

Illinois and Iowa friends, please use the following links NOW to organize your vote. Illinois friends in particular, don’t be negligent because our state is historically Democratic. There are other forces unguided by history.

As this and many more apps came on-line last week, I started thinking of the terrifying election experience I lived through in South Africa nearly twenty years ago.

These apps are good. They won’t guarantee your vote but like travel insurance they lower your risks against being uncounted. One addendum: take a picture of your filled-in ballot. Whether you mail it in or actually vote in person, create evidence that no one can ever take from you. From us.

For Illinois: click here. For Iowa: click here.

On March 17, 1992, I woke up in my resident hotel in Johannesburg and got ready to go to work like I had for several weeks previously. My investors in the States in our new business, viaDirect, were depending upon me. I was so focused on the new business that I had missed entirely that this day was probably the most important day in the life of South Africa.

It was the last all-white election. If the election was “won” by apartheid supporters, there would be a blood bath just like the South African writer, Wilbur Smith, predicted in his book, Rage. Much more importantly, though, if the election wasn’t lost BY A LANDSLIDE there could still be a bloodbath because those in power were manipulating the levers of the election.

It’s actually shameful as I think about it, now. I’ve tried to reconstruct my disinterest with the moment. My new business had modeled either election outcome, and while the best outcome for the business was to end apartheid, it wouldn’t be a major blow even if apartheid were to continue.

The shameful failing of that analysis was that it didn’t recognize the potential violence and catastrophe that were possible with the outcome.

I would have understood that better had I read Rage. I hadn’t nor had I given enough interest to all the opposition writing available. I didn’t understand how dangerous things could become. All I was looking at were business models.

The lifting fog through which I drove my car on the M1 that morning of 1992 wasn’t just meteorological. It was spiritual. EWT was at the time wildly successful. We averaged 3-4,000 people to East Africa per year, making us in 1988 the largest American wholesaler to Kenya. I wanted to expand into other endeavors and I was filled with optimism driven by experience. I had a partner from one of the country’s best advertising agencies and an investor from the new Silicon Valley.

We were invited into the executive floor of United Airlines. President George Bush had pressured his good friend and supporter, Stephen Wolf, who at the time was CEO of United, to begin flying to South Africa. We would provide the tourism part. It was all a scheme of the Republicans’ pitifully incremental attempts to hasten the end of apartheid by creeping capitalism. My venture was part of that plan for creeping capitalism!

This is important: It wasn’t excitement that put the blinders on my eyes that distant Thursday ago. It was intense focus on my work. I failed my investors in not having read Rage or in a thousand other ways understood the potential catastrophe. As you know, rage did not happen. On that score I squeaked by.

But I failed myself in not recognizing what an important, dangerous and jeopardized day March 12, 1992, was. My indifference along with probably hundreds of other American businessmen in South Africa supported by weak Republican theories could have contributed to the bloodbath had it occurred.

I drove on a highway that morning that I swear did not have another car on what all the previous mornings – even weekends – were traffic jams. I knew something was wrong and flipped on the news. The news was controlled by the State. It was to be a lovely day, partly cloudy, highs in the lower twenties.

I pulled off the highway into a ghost town. By now the knowledge I did have of the election was freaking me out.

One of the reasons I started work early was because I didn’t have a reserved parking place in the garage next to our office. I usually ended up on the top, eighth floor. There were a few cars on the first floor but lots of empty space. I raced out quickly onto the empty street. All the smaller sidewalk stores were closed up but one, and the vendor was out front sweeping his walk.

“We’re supposed to be closed,” he growled angrily at me. “I’m not changing my routine for no terrorist.”

Gallup was one of the few international polling companies. I had advised my partners back home that Gallup predicted a neck-and-neck election. What this old Boer added was that a disaster was on its way and he was going to be a part of it.

White South Africans were so deflated by two decades of a low level civil war and global controversies that one thing was certain: They wanted it over. That meant either retreating as losers into the shadows or fighting to the death.

No vote is as simple as it seems. From the point that thousands of white voters from Stellenbosch to Nelspruit stuck their ballot it into a cardboard box, dozens – hundreds of other hands moved it along before it mattered. Counted and recounted by a dozen others, called into sub-election centers then tallied and retallied until finally at the end of the chain state-controlled apartheid election officials would calculate the results.

If the vote were close, the clear winner would be hell.

Gallup was really wrong. The election ended apartheid by more than 2-to-1 from the still all-white electorate. The victory was too large to be contested.

For the last decade writing this blog I’ve seen more and more comparisons between Africa and America. This moment is exactly such a comparison. The meddling is being undertaken in plain sight.

Winning is not the issue. Winning so big that any contest will wither on the vine is the only good outcome.

(My business journey to South Africa began a number of months earlier in the United headquarters in Chicago. One the executives my partners and I met at that first meeting was Carol Mantey, among the first women MBA graduates from the University of Michigan, who ten years later came to work for EWT in our downsized, semi-retirement fun business in remote Galena, Illinois!

Now if any of you don’t believe that African spirits convinced Ms. Mantey, a retired executive of United Airlines, to work part time for my little company for $10 plus travel perks, you must be a scientologist.)