It’s not often that one wakes up on a particular day and say, today I’m going to be a part of history. Twenty years ago on this day I woke up and said exactly those words to myself. 27 April 1994.
Like ArchBishop Desmond Tutu said, it was a feeling unlike any other : ‘It is an incredible feeling, like falling in love.’ And I can testify. It was. I don’t know about you but damn, first time I fell in love, the world seemed perfect, as though everything was bending to my will. I felt like I was floating and had this grin on my face that I couldn’t get rid of.
The day before that historic election found me on the dusty streets of Tembisa, I’ve always wanted to use that phrase ‘dusty streets of Tembisa’, don’t be misled, 80% or more of South African township streets were dusty because they were not tarred at the time. The apartheid government had better priorities, like ensuring all the white suburbs were tarred, and they were. Why this phrase became a catch-phrase beats me.
Anyway, I had four friends who lived in my street and we agreed that we were going to be the first in line to vote. Voting stations were due to open at 7am. We planned it such that we would be there by 5am, a good two hours before they opened. Although the day itself had been declared a public holiday, it was made even sweeter because if fell within school holidays. So everybody was home.
1994 had been preceded by a really tumultuous 1993. Exactly a year year before we voted, on 10 April 1993, Chris Martin Thembisile Hani, the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party was assassinated. If ever there was a day South Africa could have gone to war, that was the day. Chris Hani had been one of those leaders whose aura was felt long before he returned from exile. He was the leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress, and we had heard lots of stories of his bravery in the fight against apartheid. He had actively engaged with the South African army with the Zimbabwean freedom fighters and the stories of his bravery were legendary.
It was therefore such an amazingly contrast-filled reality when he finally returned from exile and we met this very well-spoken leader, well read too. He was fiery alright but very likeable. This Shakespeare-quoting smiling man with an Afro was the last person you would expect to be the object of white hatred. Even though he was almost always clad in military fatigues at political rallies, he projected an image of an educated leader, full of reason. You had no choice but to take him to heart.
10 April 1993 was the first time I had felt a searing pain for the death of someone who was not a family member. When I heard he had been shot dead, like most of my countrymen I felt this is the day South Africa goes down. There had been instances before like the Boipatong massacre in 1992 when it felt like the negotiations process had not only stalled but hit a brick wall. But this time it felt like the worst was about to happen, a civil war. There are images of him lying on his driveway that I cannot get out of my mind to this day. I was scared.
That evening, Nelson Mandela was beamed live into our living rooms, extolling all of us, black and white, to act with restraint. I think I’ve said it before on this blog, Mandela was inaugurated as President in May 1994, but he became the de facto president of this country on that evening of 10 April 1993, the day Chris Hani died. Needless to say, a civil war was averted, but a certain urgency had been injected into the negotiations process. It was like Chris Hani’s blood had indeed ‘watered the tree that bore the fruits of liberation’.
The date of 27 April 1994 was set soon after Chris Hani’s death, July 1993 I think. Voter registration and education commenced. I was fortunate enough to be part of a group of young people who ran voter education Workshops that gave me an insight into what people were thinking prior to our date with destiny, 27 April 1994. I remember a young girl asking me in Orange Farm, then just a ‘squatter camp’ south of Johannesburg: “what will happen if the Right Wing groups like the AWB do no accept the result of the election?” I had no proper answer to her question. But like lots of other South Africans, I just knew they had had their chance at derailing things, it was our turn now. Faith.
It didn’t matter that political violence was at its highest just before the polls. In fact, on average, in 1993, deaths due to political violence averaged 205 a month. A month after the date was announced that figure climbed to over 600. Bombs were going off at various points throughout the country.It didn’t matter that the Inkatha Freedom Party had decided not to take part in the election. This train was leaving and if you were not on it, tough.
So that morning, on the 27th of April 1994, a twenty-year-old me woke up and together with three of my friends walked in darkness to the polling station. We were indeed the first in line. People started trickling in soon afterwards. The elderly and disabled were given preference in the queue and I think by the time the electoral staff arrived my friends and I were now twenty to thirty places away from the front of the queue, it did not matter though. It was a good four hours before I actually entered that classroom that served as a polling station at Marhulana Primary School.
I cannot recall every step I took, but I still remember the sense that I was making history walking into that classroom. Over three hundred years of struggle had culminated in me having the right to walk into that classroom and place my mark next to the smiling face of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. I didn’t fully understand the full weight of my cross on that ballot paper, but I knew that it was a cross to reclaim our dignity, a cross that said good will always triumph over evil. A cross for freedom.
And today, as I look back, I am truly proud and privileged to have been part of that time in our history. Talk about parents timing your conception to perfection. It’s only now that it occurs to me that had that day come just two years earlier I would have been deprived of a chance to share my role in history with you. I would have been too young to vote, but as it turns out, I was just the right age. Happy freedom day.
And oh, by the way, the classroom that served as a polling station on that historic day was one in which my mom had been teaching for many years before, and continued to do so for close to twenty years afterwards. Just thought I’d slip that in there.