I remember the crisp, fresh autumn morning in April 1994 well, right down to the clothes I wore. I was waiting in a queue that went on and around a few blocks ahead of me – no front in sight. Behind me, the queue went on for even longer. People were chatting. Strangers striking up conversation with one another… laughter, joking, excitement, anticipation. English, Afrikaans, isiZulu, Setswana and so many more languages merging together into a unique rhythm, music to the ear. Strangers – young, old, healthy, frail, male, female and – then – most importantly, black, coloured, Indian and white all together with the same vision ahead of us.
18 years old, having just recently celebrated my birthday, I held my identity book as if it were gold. This was one thing that my normally flippant teenage mind grasped the importance of and I took a mental photo of that moment, standing in that line waiting to cast my first ever vote along with so many others who had waiting so long, too long to have their individual voice heard.
It did not matter which party we were voting for. What mattered was that we could now share the same experience, irrespective of our backgrounds, beliefs, language or colour of our skin. We knew that change was inevitable. What was not inevitable in our minds was how it would all turn out.
Everyone recalls this day – the first free and fair democratic elections in South Africa that marked the end of Apartheid. The picture of snaking queues of people that went on for kilometres and that filled television screens will remain imprinted in the minds of everyone around the world. What must not be forgotten is that the wheels were set into motion long before these queues gave the first insight into the sheer number of South Africans who yearned to make the country something to be proud of. I cannot detail the intricate political history or the many steps along the way, but I can share my memories – the thoughts of an adolescent who understood that what was happening was significant, but perhaps not yet how significant it all was.
The first memory I have of the impending change of ‘the way things were’ was on 11 February 1990, when I saw, on the news, a man called Nelson Mandela being released from prison. Not being too interested in adult chatter, but still managing to absorb snippets of conversation, I recall being unsure about whether this was a good or perhaps not-so-good thing.
A referendum was called in 1992 to determine whether white South Africans supported the negotiated reforms that would bring an end to the Apartheid system. Always grateful for my multi-racial schooling, I remember the entire school being led out onto the athletics field as the referendum was due to take place, creating a colourful chain of joined hands, singing songs of peace and hoping for a positive outcome. It was.
Leading up to those elections in 1994, there was naturally a great sense of apprehension and uncertainty. Would revenge be exacted by those who had suffered for so many years in so many ways – humiliation, physical violence, exclusion and separation? Would extreme right-wing groups scupper the work that was being done? What would happen and how would it affect us all?
Well, on that day in 1994, there was no sign of those worries and fears. Cleaners, gardeners, rubbish collectors, teachers, lawyers, doctors, the educated, the illiterate stood side by side. All wanting the best for themselves, their families, their future and our beautiful country.
Nelson Mandela became our President by means of a legitimate process, but he became our hero through his example, his instinctive talent for leadership and his decision to leave bitterness to evaporate in the confines of a prison cell.
He took what utopian thinkers might call the best possible outcome and made it a reality. We wanted to be able to live side by side, accepting of and acknowledging our differences, carving a life for our families filled with opportunity and making South Africa an example of how an infamous country can become one to be emulated, held up as a model of reconciliation, respect and worthiness.
He helped us to feel worthy – worthy to each have our place in society and on the world stage. I always smile to myself when people from overseas talk about the film Invictus and how magnificent the World Cup-winning rugby match must have been. It is indeed a wonderful film and one which had my husband and I teary eyed as we managed to catch it randomly and at least three times on TV after we arrived in Germany. Oh, but it was so much better in reality. To experience a such a sense of unity, of support for one another and our team, and to admire the example set by such a savvy, yet authentic and sincere leader is indescribable.
What a sense of pride it gives me to know that I am a witness to one of the most significant periods of African and world history.
As I think back to that day in 1994, it strikes me as significant that I cannot actually recall the very moment that I made my first cross on a ballot. What stands out is the camaraderie I felt in the queue, the excitement, the acceptance and the knowledge that every person has the power to make a difference.
I will forever be grateful that we had a leader who showed us that forgiveness and love for your fellow human will overcome the darkest possibilities. Nelson Mandela served his South Africans well. Now it is our duty to continue his work, to persevere and to never allow the principles, for which he and so many others fought so hard to make a reality, to be discarded.
Rest in peace, Madiba. You are our pride, who held our hopes in your hands and kept them safe. It’s time to take those hopes and continue to strive towards them as our guiding star.