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The End of Dystopia: 20 Years of Freedom

27 April 2014

Today is Freedom Day, and we are celebrating 20 years of freedom. It is also the second Sunday of Pascha, Thomas Sunday, when we recall St Thomas saying that he would not believe that Christ had risen until he could put his fingers into the holes in the hands of the one who was crucified.

This isn’t one of my series of Tales from Dystopia, on what life was like in South Africa under apartheid. It does not mark the end of those tales either — I may tell some more such tales, if the Spirit moves. But this is a kind of juxtaposition of memories of our first democratic election with the theme of Thomas Sunday. It was what I preached on in our house church in Atteridgeville this morning.

The first democratic election, on 27 April 1994, fell in the middle of Holy Week.

There were some attempts by right wingers to disrupt the election — some bombs went off in the middle of Johannesburg. Inkatha planned to boycott the election, and 700 people died in fighting in the lead-up to the elction. Inkatha agreed to take place at the last minute, and the ballot papers had already been printed without them, so millions of stickers had to be printed to add to the ballot papers. The white right also predicted a bloodbath, and the world media were on hand to record it. Supermarket shelves in many places were empty, as people stocked up with tinned food, fearing the worst.

Some Orthodox parishes said that their parishioners were too scared to come to the Holy Week services, especially the evening ones, and the Archbishop gave special permission for them to be held at different times, in daylight. Our parish, St Nicholas of Japan in Brixton, decided not to change the times, and as a result we had record crowds at the services, as many of those who wanted services at the usual times came to us instead of going to their home parishes.

Here are some extracts from my diary for that day.

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[1]. So 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 8:00 am 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.

South Africa's first democratic election 27 April; 1994. Voters queuing in Mamelodi East.

South Africa’s first democratic election 27 April; 1994. Voters queuing in Mamelodi East.

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.

Voters queuing in Mamelodi East, 27 April 1994

Voters queuing in Mamelodi East, 27 April 1994

Our hands were checked under ultraviolet light to see that we had not voted before. Our identity documents were checked and stamped with invisible ink, 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.

Because of the number of people voting, the voting was extended for another couple of days, and as we went to church on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, we passed the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) headquarters in Auckland Park. They had closed off half of the double-carriageway to provide parking for foreign journalists, but by Good Friday most of them had left. The expected bloodbath had failed to materialise, but was happening 4000 km away, in Rwanda.

St Nicholas Church, Brixton, Johannesburg, on Good Friday, 29 April; 1994

St Nicholas Church, Brixton, Johannesburg, on Good Friday, 29 April; 1994

Twenty years later we look back on that day that for most of my life I thought I would never live to see.

And today it is Thomas Sunday, and I think about hands. The hands that St Thomas wanted to stick his fingers in the wounds of, before he would believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. Our hands as we walked out of church smelling on Holy Wednesday — the smell of freedom on one side, and the smell of healing on the other.

And there was more about hands in today’s Epistle reading:

Acts 5:12-20 (Epistle)

And through the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were done among the people. And they were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch.

Yet none of the rest dared join them, but the people esteemed them highly.

And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women,

so that they brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them.

Also a multitude gathered from the surrounding cities to Jerusalem, bringing sick people and those who were tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all healed.

Then the high priest rose up, and all those who were with him (which is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with indignation, and laid their hands on the apostles and put them in the common prison.

But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.

The aposles laid hands on the sick, and they were healed. Hands of healing.
The Saducees laid hands on the aposltles and put them in prison. Hands of oppression.
Healing and freedom on the one hand, oppression on the other.
Let us speak the words of this life to the people, and use our own hands for healing and freedom, and never again for oppression.
[1] In that first democratic election, the desire was to be as inclusive as possible. There was no voter’s roll, and anyone could vote anywhere they pleased. We wanted to go to Mamelodi to vote with people who had been denied the vote previously, because we thought it would be much more like the taste of freedom than the white suburbs.
In later elections there has been a voters roll, and we can now vote only at the polling station where we are registered, close to home.
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