Today is Freedom Day in South Africa, and it marks 18 years since our first democratic elections, which took place over 3 days, from 27-29 April 1994, which also happened to be Holy Week.
I recall it by looking to see what I wrote in my diary at the time. It was also something that we wrote in a letter to friends and family, so it has some explanations I wouldn’t normally put in a diary entry, and it just seemed easiest to copy it into my diary as a description of the day. It was the only general election we have had where anyone could vote anywhere. There were no voters’ rolls, and non-citizens who were permanent residents were also allowed to vote. It was the most free and most inclusive election we have ever had.
Wednesday 27 April 1994
Last night at midnight we watched on TV as the old South African flag was hauled down, and the new one raised. A new era for South Africa has really begun. The country’s first democratic election actually began yesterday, with special votes being cast by people living abroad, and by the old, the infirm and invalids. There were problems in some places, mainly logistical, in getting supplies and equipment to all the right places for people to vote. Today was the first day of voting for the rest of us.
At 7:00 am we watched on TV as Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress (ANC), cast his vote in Inanda, Natal. He wanted to vote in Natal, because that is where the ANC started in 1912, and their struggle for political rights for black South Africans has therefore lasted 82 years. Inanda is also an area where there has been much political violence in recent years. There was then similar footage of Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, of the Inkatha Freedom Party, casting
his vote. Both had to move around a lot to pose for photographers wanting to record the historic moment.
Then we decided it was time to go and vote. Where? On impulse we decided to go to Mamelodi, a black township 14km away. So my wife Val and I set off, accompanied by daughter Bridget toting a camera. She won’t be old enough to vote till next year, but she wasn’t planning to miss the fun. Just before 8:00am the streets of Pretoria were absolutely dead. I’ve never seen the place so deserted. A yellow police van behind us was the only car we saw for most of the way to Mamelodi. Mamelodi had slightly more life than Pretoria. A couple of cars, and some pedestrians, but no buses or taxis. We drove through Mamelodi West, and saw no signs of activity.
Then we reached Mamelodi East, and saw some cars and people, and when we got closer, some posters from the IEC (Independent Electoral Commission). We stopped, parked next to the main road, and then walked into the grounds of a school – don’t even know what it was called. There was a policeman at the gate, and a newspaper seller. We bought some papers, and joined the end of a queue just inside the gate, that disappeared round the corner of the building. People silently filed in behind us. It was very quiet, almost solemn. The queue moved slowly, and when we reached the corner of the building, we saw it stretched right down the length of the building and to the far end of the netball field beyond. A young IEC official came to ask if everyone had identity documents of some kind – those who didn’t were directed to another school next door, where they could get temporary voter cards. He also took a look at Bridget’s T-shirt, with the slogan “Masibeke uxolo phambili” (Let us look forward to peace) on it. He decided it wasn’t party propaganda, so it was OK. Party slogans etc. were not allowed within a certain radius of polling stations.
We shuffled down the length of the building, and right round the netball field, then back to another building. There was very little talking, no pushing, no shoving, no queue jumping, no impatience. We were the only whites there.
Occasionally people would greet someone they knew. One thing that struck me was that four out of five voters seemed to be male. Maybe women were planning to vote at another time, or maybe there were more male voters than female ones in Mamelodi.
It took about 2 hours to reach the front of the queue. Our hands were checked under ultraviolet light to see that we had
not voted before. Our identity documents were checked and stamped, our hands were sprayed with invisible ink, and
we were given ballot papers to vote with. The ballot boxes already seemed to be pretty full. It looked as though they would need new ones fairly soon. As we were leaving the school grounds, some other whites walked in – the first we had seen. They were international observers monitoring the election.
We had been told of the chaos and logistical problems at some of the other 9000+ polling stations in the country, but this one in Mamelodi East was pretty slick operation. The IEC deserves to be congratulated. There was also no violence, no intimidation, no canvassing and no soliciting. There wasn’t a party worker in sight from any of the parties. As far as we could see, voting at Mamelodi was certainly free and fair. It was a solemn, somewhat awesome occasion. We had seen the future, and it works.
When we got in the car, it was 10:00 am, and we rushed to Johannesburg 100 km away for a church service at 11:00. For Orthodox Christians this is Holy Wednesday, and in many Orthodox Churches the Holy Unction (anointing of the sick) is celebrated on this day. It is long – about 2 hours – another two hours of standing in church, praying for healing. Praying not just for healing of particular ailments, but for general healing, of ourselves, of our relationships, of our country and its wounds. It seemed entirely appropriate. And after the service there was a mingled smell of both – on the back on one’s hand was the slight lemon smell of the invisible ink from the voting, and on the palm was the smell of olive oil, the oil of healing. Kyrie eleison – Gospodi pomiliu – Lord have mercy. May the Lord indeed heal our land. Masibeke uxolo phambili – May we see peace ahead.
[End of diary entry]
The voting lasted three days, and they had been declared public holidays to give everyone a chance to vote. Our experience of 2 hours in the queue showed that that was needed.
One thing I did not mention in my diary entry was the white panic. Supermarkets had empty shelves, especially where tinned goods usually were, as people stocked up for an expected siege.
Our church, St Nicholas in Brixton, Johannesburg, was the only parish in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg and Pretoria that had the normal Holy Week Services at the normal times. Other parishes had asked the Archbishop for permission to change the times of services because they expected “trouble”. At St Nicholas we discussed the Archbishop’s letter giving permission for this, and decided that Jesus didn’t change the time of his crucifixion because he expected “trouble”. It was trouble, and that was what it was all about. So we decided to go ahead with out regularly scheduled services, no matter what. And as a result of being the only parish to have services at the normal times, we had bigger congregations at the Holy Week services than at any other time, before or since, as people from all the other parishes who thought the panic was silly came to join us.
During the last days of Holy Week there are two services a day, each lasting 2-4 hours, so we appreciated the public holidays for the elections, as the roads remained quiet, as on the first day of the elections. Just before reaching the church we passed the headquarters of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), and they had closed half the double-carriageway to provide parking for all the foreign journalists who had come to cover the elections, and, it seems, the bloodbath that they too expected. On the third day of the elections (Good Friday) half of them had gone, off to Rwanda, where the bloodbath was really taking place. [Diary resumes]
Holy Thursday 28 April 1994
We went to church early to get the flowers ready for the epitafion and then to the Vesperal Divine Liturgy at 11:00, and afterwards stayed until 4:00 pm doing the flowers, polishing the brass, etc. Pierre van Rijswijck was there, and kept saying how sorry he felt for the Afrikaners, because they had lost everything, even more than the Germans after the Second World War – their flag, their anthem etc. I couldn’t feel sympathetic, since they had gained what the rest of us had gained as well – an inclusive flag, and a more inclusive anthem. Those who reject them are probably a minority, and their behaviour seems more like the dwarfs in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, who thought they were still in a stable. They’ll refuse to go to heaven because there are no “whites only” signs there.
Easter Sunday 1 May 1994
There were a lot of people in the church for the vigil – perhaps because most of the other parishes had moved their services to later in the morning for fear of violence during the elections. Quite a lot of them stayed for the Divine Liturgy, unlike most Greeks who rush off halfway through, and many stayed for the feast afterwards.
We got home at 4:30 am and went to bed, and then I woke up at 9:30 and we watched the TV for election results, but they
kept showing stuff with a puppet they had shown before, and didn’t show very much of the actual numbers, which is what we wanted to see. From what they did show it seemed that the smaller parties did better in the provincial elections than in the national ones.
In the evening Val and I went to the Pascha Vespers, with the gospel read in many languages. It is always a very peaceful and relaxed service, and this time was no exception. We stopped for a steak roll at the Steers in Auckland Park. On Wednesday it was full of foreign journalists, but now it was very quiet.
[end of diary entry]
The ANC won the election, and after that there were preparations for the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first democratically elected president. Pretoria was illuminated for the occasion.
Presidential Inauguration, Tuesday 10 May 1994
It was our son Jethro’s 13th birthday. We gave him presents, then went to the Union Buildings for the presidential inauguration ceremony. We parked at the Art Gallery, but had to walk right down to Hamilton Street and back to get into the grounds. There were police and ANC marshals doing body searches, but there was generally a friendly atmosphere.
We were quite early, and got up near the top end of the Botha lawn, where we could watch things on a big TV screen. The place filled up gradually. The proceedings were delayed because Al Gore, the American Vice President, was late and kept everybody waiting. He didn’t get any cheers when he arrived. There were loud cheers for archbishops Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu, and for political leaders like Kenneth Kaunda, Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat.
After the actual inauguration, which was very short, there was a 21 gun salute, and a fly-past by the air force (including nine Harvards and nine Dakotas in formation – probably a unique sight of so many antique aircraft), and helicopters flying the new flag. All produced great cheering, and singing of songs in praise of Mkhonto Wesizwe – “they’re ours now” seemed to be the general feeling.
Symbolic doves were released, and circled over the city. When Verwoerd released one at the founding of the first republic, it fluttered to the ground and sat there. When one was released at Chris Hani’s funeral, it went into the grave. If such symbols mean anything, this one seemed to say that the time is indeed right for peace. When the Ciskei celebrated its “independence” the flagpole fell over. But apart from some delays (apparently caused by American security officials guarding US Vice-President Al Gore) this one went off without a hitch.
The theme of the concert afterwards was “one nation, many cultures”, though we went home before the end to watch South Africa thrash Zambia 2-1 in a soccer match. Maybe our team were still on a high, because it was indeed an exhilarating day.
In speeches since the election, and especially at the inauguration, Nelson Mandela has emphasised the theme of national unity. He sometimes wagged his finger, but it was not the imperious finger-wagging for which PW Botha was notorious. It was gentler, more grandfatherly. Perhaps what we were seeing was not so much the inauguration of the president as the adoption of the grandfather of the nation.
My own thoughts of that time were summed up by Psalm 125/126
When the Lord turned again the captivity of Sion: then were we like unto them that dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter: and our tongue with joy.
Then said they among the heathen: the Lord hath done great things for them.
Yes, the Lord hath done great things for us already: whereof we rejoice.
Turn our captivity, O Lord: as the rivers in the south.
They that sow in tears: shall reap in joy.
He that now goeth on his way weeping, and beareth forth good seed: shall doubtless come again with joy, and bring his sheaves with him.
When I read the last verse of the Psalm, I think of all the struggle heroes, like those I mentioned in the preceding post: Cosmas Desmond, Elliot Mngadi, Jerome Mbele, Mike Ndlovu, Enock Mnguni and countless others. Some lived to see that day, and some didn’t. But through their struggle, that day at last came.
Masibeke uxolo phambili!