South Africa was always behind The United States in terms of fashion and culture by about 25 years. I know this because 25 years after Whites Only signs disappeared from the southern US landscape, so they slowly and finally removed themselves from our cities - like an embarrassed party guest caught stealing the prize liquor in the cabinet. Elevators, shops, busses, cinemas and even schools slowly dabbled with multiculturalism, tentatively dipping their toes in to see if they would freeze. And then the demonized ANC was legalized. And then the man the government told us to fear most, Nelson Mandela, was released like a hero returning from purgatory. The wall was coming down, but many worked hard to ensure it would come down piece-by-peace, and not in one massive explosion that would take the country with it. Like East Germans, black South Africans ventured into areas previously forbidden, knowing that they no longer needed a pass or permission to share the air and space of their country with the rest of us. We were all scared, and all excited, because this was right, and moral, and just.
Yet these things usually go down with civil war, bloodshed and violence, especially in Africa. And then came Election Day. The first universally democratic vote ever in the history of South Africa. The last white bastion stronghold, the colonial heart of history, was about to get a bypass. Of the three main political parties, you kinda knew Black South Africans wouldn’t go for the National Party (under the slogan that should have read “48 years of Apartheid. Whoops, sorry. Vote NP!”). The Conservative Party was made up of neo-nazi crackpot Afrikaners, lacking an enduring mascot, so, em, no go there. Finally, we have the African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela, who has fought against injustice with dignity and humanity, who has never backed down, who has inspired the world. As you can tell, it was going to be a close race.
And so Election Day was announced, along with the formation of a UN Monitoring Committee, to make sure it was free and fair and the National Party would not return to power on their apology platform. To be fair, age-old tensions between the primarily Xhosa ANC and the militant Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party had resulted in more than a few massacres in regions where massacres had gone on for centuries. Intimidation was expected. Many in the masses could neither read nor write.
At the time of Election Day, I was in my second year at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. At the time, the small college town on the Eastern Cape had a population of 80 000, 75% of which were unemployed. 5000 of which were mostly privileged white kids getting wasted on cheap beer, cheaper pot, and total independence from anything representing authority. They called this "an education." On April 27, a Saturday, I was driving with my friend Grant to his parent’s retirement house, 45 minutes away in the beautiful coastal village of Kenton-on-Sea. We both shared the feeling that were our vote to actually count, we would probably register and do it. But since a glowing unicorn mounted by a giant furry Cyclops wouldn’t stop Mandela from assuming rightful control of the country, there was little point to join the line and share the experience of voting. Besides, we had voted before. Just recently, Grant had voted for me as our [frat-house] Entertainment Coordinator, and I had rewarded him with a few beers. Line-ups have never been my thing. Years later I'd bribe a guard in Moscow's Red Square to skip a six hour line to see the glowing corpse of Lenin.
I casually mention the word “line”. Another word would be "queue." Both these words do a grave injustice to the millions of black people who stood upright for hours (and in some cases days) in order to be counted. They snaked from one end of town to the other, curving and turning as far the eye could see. Sprinkled like white chocolate chips were pale faces. As we walked down the main street, it was only then that we saw the importance, the victory, the remarkable road the country had driven down. There was no violence. There was just hope and victory. A long, long, line of hope and victory.
We drove past several towns and settlements, stopping along the way to observe the quality of human shape, the amazing patience of the masses. Blue UN Voting Station signs were placed outside halls and schools, and slowly the lines fed into the machine like sausages. The scene was similar across the country, and the world media loved it. Several friends had volunteered to be coordinators, which was quite brave at the time, because there was still rumours that Election Day would see a white right-wing backlash, resulting in violence around the country. There was some violence. Xhosa/Zulu blood feuds are difficult to stamp out.
As we made our way to the east, we did come across one town that seemed free of people. The nearest township had its own voting station, and this one was almost exclusively for the white inhabitants, numbering about 23. Now that it was convenient - because politics is best when convenient - we decided to vote after all. I voted for Nelson Mandela, and I’m proud that I did. It was a remarkable day, when Africa rediscovered its pride, and its chosen people.