THE aroma of coffee greeted visitors to the Independent Electoral Commission’s (IEC) Provincial Results and Operations Centre in Bellville South on Tuesday.

And it took litres of the stuff to keep the die-hard candidates, IEC staff and media representatives who made the centre their home in the 72 hours before, during and after the May 18 local government election – awake and alert.

“We have contingencies in place for every aspect of the plan, and have contingencies for those contingencies as well,” said provincial electoral officer, Courtney Sampson, a day before the elections.
Unfortunately these plans did not include heaters or blankets for the odd hundred who braved the cold nights in the hall.
For three long days and nights, a couple of chairs or a hard floor doubled as beds for the desperate.
But it was, nonetheless, heartening to hear that everything that could possibly go wrong during the voting process had been analysed and planned for by the IEC.

With 2 706 736 registered voters in the province, 387 wards, 1 572 voting locations, 16 000 volunteers, 400 area managers, 31 municipal IEC offices and 25 municipal officers, it suffices to say that plans (and plans to deal with those plans) would play a vital part in ensuring a free and fair election.

Early on Wednesday, officials, VIPs and the media opened the day with an inter-faith moment of prayer, but before words like “Amen” or “Ameen” stopped echoing in the hall, life at the centre went into overdrive.
The hustle and bustle conjured an image in my mind of a well-oiled machine which was finally fulfilling its role. I’ve never been in a “war room”, but my Masters degree in Hollywood Science led me to believe that the centre was just that.
Everyone was performing a vital role, and together they orchestrated something of great significance.
The energy around the place was intoxicating, and most questions were answered with long, beautifully crafted and passionate responses.

In the middle of the hall, 22 IEC officials who worked in what is known as the operations hub attended to calls from the voting stations and sometimes even the public.
Television stations lined up the VIPs for interviews, and journalists were typing on their laptops with verve.
The coffee made its first appearance almost inconspicuously. Even though everyone there was under no illusions that the next few days (and nights) would be tough, few would have expected that a love affair of such magnitude would develop between them and that wondrous bean.

The results started trickling in later that day to much fanfare, but the energy levels seemed to set with the sun.
Various press conferences and voting updates spurred moments of commotion, and then hands reached for the empty mugs again.
Every now and again a person armed with a Red Bull would zip past and talk really quickly, but most would be concentrating on soothing their heavy eyelids.
One woman thought she could stay awake by drinking copious amounts of muscle relaxants, but she fainted and had to be rushed to hospital.

Questions were few and far between, since the answers dwindled to one or two words.
“Why?” often cued “because”.
The cold hall was magnificently decorated with South African flags, IEC banners, colourful ribbons and emblems of political parties, but all this counted for nothing in Arctic-like conditions.
Some ANC and Cope representatives made a fire in one of the hearths, which brought out some light-hearted speculation that there might be a coalition on the cards.

The return of the sun was eagerly anticipated, and was eventually welcomed with open arms.
Spirits lifted and answers lengthened.
Results were coming in thick and fast, and generous adrenaline glands kick-started a busy Thursday for everyone.
On Friday morning there was precious little energy in reserve for the brave. All that was left was their unwavering belief that their efforts furthered the cause of democracy in South Africa.

The whole election process was described by the IEC as a nation-building event which would go on to fill each voter with pride and a belief in a brighter tomorrow.
Now that the 2011 elections have been consigned to history, I look at the effort put in by officials and the mostly peaceful procession of voters last Wednesday, and I am proud of what our country has become – a fledgling democracy fuelled by freedom, reason, mutual respect and coffee.