This post first appeared on crikey.com.au,
It is also my 100th post on this blog. I dedicate 95 of those posts to Nelson Mandela, for each of the 95 years of his life:
I will always remember voting in South Africa’s first democratic elections on April 27, 1994. It was a miracle they took place at all; far-right-wing organisations threatened civil war, and only last-minute negotiations and concessions ensured all key political parties took part in the historic vote.
Such was the fear that some people took to draining their swimming pools and stocking them with cans of baked beans, mineral water and tinned tuna in case all hell broke loose — or so the urban legend went. But certainly there were empty shelves in the supermarket and a tremendous sense of tension in the air.
In the lead-up there had been bomb blasts at Johannesburg airport instigated by the paramilitary AWB (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) and, a year before, the terrible slaying of Communist Party leader Chris Hani carried out by a white Polish immigrant named Janusz Walus as part of a right-wing plot that had pushed the country to the brink of anarchy.
But the doomsayers were all proved wrong.
On April 27 the front-page headline in Johannesburg’s The Star newspaper proclaimed boldly “Vote the beloved country”, a play on Alan Paton’s famous novel Cry, The Beloved Country about apartheid’s injustices, which we all read at school. Underneath the headline was a photo taken from a helicopter showing a snaking line of people stretching beyond the confines of the photograph waiting patiently to vote for the first time in their lives.
People queued for hours. In the big cities. In country towns. In townships. In rural villages. On hillsides.
Apart from getting married and the birth of my daughter, it was the single greatest day in my life. It was a privilege to be alive and still young (I was 21 at the time), but old enough to play my small part in such a defining moment in our troubled country’s history.
I remember it as a glorious crisp, early autumn day. Blue skies. Electricity in the air.
I voted at the nearby primary school just a short drive from home. I am not someone who shows his emotions, but as I drove past the line of people waiting on the pavement, there were tears in my eyes, and my heart felt like it was ballooning out of my chest.
In that queue was Nelson Mandela’s vision, why he had spent 27 years of his life imprisoned on Robben Island and why he had emerged not to proclaim war against those who oppressed him but to suggest a vision of the “rainbow nation” where everyone, no matter the colour of their skin, could feel proud to call themselves South African.
That queue outside the primary school in leafy suburban Jo’burg, in queues all over the country from Cape Town at the bottom of the country to Messina on the Zimbabwean border, the rainbow nation was brought to life for the world to see.
“… white middle-aged Jewish women in designer outfits, who for years had kept domestics (or “maids” as we called them) to raise and feed their children, stood quietly behind those they employed.”
Having parked my car some distance away, I took my place in the line. Ahead of me white middle-aged Jewish women in designer outfits, who for years had kept domestics (or “maids” as we called them) to raise and feed their children, stood quietly behind those they employed. Dapperly dressed old African men, once forced to carry “passbooks” regulating their movements in white areas under apartheid, stood beside Portuguese-born restaurateurs, Italian hairdressers and sun-loving British immigrants. Petrol attendants stood next to lawyers, suburban housewives, next to black mini-cab drivers. Black gardeners stood side-by-side with white doctors and accountants. Petrol attendants in blue overalls stood next to white old ladies with permed hair and tissues tucked under their sleeves, who stood behind Indian shopkeepers and coloured fruit sellers.
There was something in the air that day. Yes the tension remained, but there was the sense the dream could be real, that we could all learn to get along and in doing so rebuild and repair centuries of inequality, injustice and brutality. It would not be easy, but it was possible.
Soon after, the votes tallied, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as our first president.
The following year, South Africa won the Rugby World Cup; Mandela famously wore his No.7 jersey alongside Francois Pienaar (I retreated to my bedroom, head under my pillow, too anxious to watch the dying seconds of the match before Joel Stransky’s wondrous drop goal) and we all danced together in the streets, waving our new and strange-looking flag with gusto. The following year our soccer team, Bafana Bafana (“the boys”), won the African Cup of Nations in front of 120,000 screaming fans in Soweto.
Of course the euphoria over those early days of freedom have faded into reality. There are many challenges still facing the Rainbow Nation: crime, AIDS, inequality, corruption. But the new South Africa, even with these big problems, is a vastly better place than I remember through the rose-tinted glasses of my privileged white upbringing.
I never met Mandela, though I often drove past his imposing Houghton house a few suburbs from my own on my way home from work. With a bit more luck I might have bumped into him as his picked up his medications at the local pharmacy in the cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Norwood, a few kilometres down the road. Sadly, it never happened.
What would I have said to him? Perhaps, thank you for those glorious days in April. And for giving us hope and a glimpse of what might still be.