‘I vote for a better life’: 116-year-old
SA’s oldest voter recalls his life in apartheid SA, when he could only hope to one day make his mark for Mandela
Phineas Sakara, who is 116 years old, started his Wednesday at the voting station, and would end it as he does every day, sitting under the grapevine in his garden, greeting his neighbours as they return from work and watching the sun go down.
He was relieved it took only 10 minutes to make his mark, but would not have minded to wait – he vividly remembers elections during apartheid when he could not participate.
“We couldn’t vote in those years and I remember just wishing that I could also cast my vote. That is why now, I make sure that with every election I vote. On days like those, we felt like we were not part of the country.”
But while Sakara would not miss voting for anything, his daughter, 65, did not want him to vote because she believes the ANC is not taking care of the elderly.
“I’m not going to vote and I didn’t want him to vote, but he is adamant that he wants to vote, so I have to respect his decision,” said Motshidisi Chirwa.
Sakara was among a handful of residents from his area who braved chilly weather on election day in his neighbourhood in Atamelang, North West.
He said he was impressed with the service at the voting station but concerned about how few people turned up.
“This doesn’t look good at all. Where are the people? I’m glad that I was done voting in a few minutes and it didn’t take long like it used to in previous years, especially in 1994 when we spent close to four hours in queues. Now, I was done in 10 minutes.”
He does not mind sharing which political party he voted for: “I vote for the ANC of Mandela, everyone knows that. I’m ANC. I voted for a better life. A better life that Mandela wanted for all of us, young and old.”
Sakara, who is originally from Malawi and came to SA as a young boy looking for work, said young people of today are a very different generation. He said he was a hard worker in his young days.Upon his arrival in Johannesburg he started working as a cleaner. There he observed the cooks in the kitchen and started developing an interest in cooking, and asked them to teach him. Soon he was also employed as a cook.
Seated in the lounge of his small house, he shared his life story with Times Select. Gospel music videos were playing in the background, while some of his many great-grandchildren often interrupted to check if he was okay and whether he needed anything.
“It was tough then and when I look at what some of the young people are doing at the moment, I can just tell they would not survive. With us, we had to work very hard for very little money. But now, young girls are just given money by the government because they have kids.
“In our days, if you chose to have a child, you would know that you have to work hard to support that child.”
As a young man, he lived in Johannesburg for 10 years before moving to Cape Town where he continued to work at a hotel as a cook.
“When I arrived here [in South Africa], I told myself that I need to travel and get to know this country well. I stayed for six years in Cape Town and went back to Johannesburg and then I stayed for good.”
Upon his return to Johannesburg Sakara met the love of his life, Lenah Chirwa. “After meeting her, I never even thought of going back to Malawi.”
Life was not easy for him, especially as a foreigner. He said the apartheid police harassed him, often arriving unannounced at work or his home before forcing the foreigners on the back of a truck to deport them.
“I would always find a way to get off the truck and sneak back into the country. I just couldn’t leave the love of my life back here.”
Lenah was from Delareyville. They married in the early 1950s and built a house there. In 1977, he said, the apartheid government evicted them from Delareyville and moved them to Atamelang, where he still lives, about 20km outside the town.
“I lost everything then. I had built myself a very big house there, that was big enough for my whole family. We were given this small matchbox house that is not even close to what we left there.”
It is in this matchbox house that he still holds a church service for about 40 people every Sunday. “We take out these couches and everything outside and we hold our church service here.”
His wife died in 1991 at the age of 70. They had four children, three of whom have died. He lives with his daughter, Motshidisi, two grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren in the house which has four rooms, two of which are bedrooms.
Sakara has 12 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren. And while the death of his children and wife left him heartbroken, the son of a pastor would never question God’s will. He said his sober habits and love for God are the reasons for his long and healthy life.
According to the home affairs department, he was the oldest person in SA to vote on Wednesday.
But he also credits the government and social grants for his long life. “If we didn’t have social grants, I don’t know how we would be surviving – and for that, I will vote in every election, up until I die.”
His voice started fading after all the talking. He asked for water and some time to rest before continuing the interview. He wanted to go outside to watch the sunset.
“Every day around 3pm, I go sit under my grapes tree and watch the sunset. I also love seeing neighbours, who are coming back from work and school, when they walk past.”
Neighbours walked past and greeted him: “Dumela, Ou Phi,” and “Dumela, my pastor”.
Sakara became philosophical again about election day, saying it made him feel special and important. That is why the cold and rainy weather in the morning did not bother him, he said.
For him, the day was a blessing from God.