*I wrote this piece for a book entitled “SA 27 April 1994”, about what happened in SA on 27 April 1994. It is an almost entirely accurate account of what transpired on that historic day, perhaps the only Public Holiday in the history of South Africa when we didn’t all go to the mall, the beach, or the braai, because we were too busy standing in the queue to vote for the right to go to the mall, the beach, or the braai in peace and in freedom.
Wednesday, April 27, 1994, dawned like just any other Wednesday, April 27 in the history of the new South Africa.
As the sun rose on the colours of the new South African flag, with its black, green, and gold symbolising the African National Congress, and its red, white, and blue symbolising the flags of many other nations, a new spirit of hope and reconcilaition began to spread through the land like wildfire.
In the tranquil garden suburb of Illovo, Johannesburg, Mrs Blanche White, a freelance fashion buyer and qualified madam, picked up her telephone extension and asked her maid, Gladys, to meet her in the dining-room for an important announcement.
“Gladys,” she said, “today is a very historical day in the history of the new South Africa. It is the day of the first democratic election, a day on which people of all creeds, colours, and races will join hands and go to the polls together to cast their vote for peace and freedom. Please keep me a place in front of you in the queue and I will join you in seven and a half hours.”
Across the bustling freeway, in the throbbing township of Alexandra, Mr Jeffrey Mpuli, a freelance entrepreneur and small businessman, set up his ironing-board outside the local community hall and began hawking a wide range of fruit, vegetables, cooldrinks, digital watches, hubcaps, election posters, baptismal certificates, IFP stickers, and unused ballot papers in packs of 150,000.
Meanwhile, just outside the busy metropolis of Bloemfontein, at the world-renowned De Brug military base, squads of highly-trained and disciplined soldiers of the National Peacekeeping Force were donning riot shields, full-face helmets, flak jackets and spare ammunition belts in preparation for a full-scale battle with their superior officers over salary deductions and the lack of a decent pub on the premises.
Further inland, in the small maize-rich town of Ventersdorp in the Western Transvaal, a battalion of heavily-camouflaged Boer freedom fighters drew up in a screeching convoy to occupy an important regional polling station, only to be told to go to the back of the queue because no-one had arrived to open the polling station yet.
All across the country, the hard-working men and women of the IEC (Incompetent Electoral Commission) were battling against considerable odds to remember what they had done with 80-million regional and national ballot papers that had been there only a moment ago.
And yet, despite the obstacles and setbacks, the mood in party political circles was one of cautious optimism that the day would turn out to be a triumph for the democratic process, except at the headquarters of the Pan Africanist Congress, where the mood was one of cautious pessimism that the day would turn out to be a triumph for the democratic process.
Already, the SABC’s Election ’94 Channel 1, broadcasting in English, Zuu, Pedi, Setswana, Venda, Tsonga and Unrelenting Waffle, was crossing over to Barbara Folscher in Cape Town, who reported that it was cold and wet and that people were standing in a long line to vote.
At the Mfolo West polling station in Soweto, Mrs Mavis Mfolo, 93, was telling a BBC television interviewer that she had been standing in the hot sun for three and a half hours and she did not see why she should let him into the queue just because he was a foreign journalist.
However, when he showed her his Britsh passport, along with an official IEC Press Release stating that anyone who had been resident in the country for more than five minutes was entitled to vote, Mrs Mflo agreed to stand back and let him go first.
On the other side of the city, in the picturesque industrial suburb of Alberton, Mr Fanie de Wit, 22, a self-employed panelbeater and rugby prop-forward, was overjoyed to find himself at the front of the queue after a gruelling yet invigorating wait of six hours and 25 minutes.
As he showed his identity document/Book of Life/temporary voter’s registration card/firearm license to the IEC official at the door, Fanie felt a sudden surge of newfound patriotism and a shared sense of destiny with millions of his fellow South Africans.
Suffused with positive energy, Fanie fought to stem the unfamiliar moistness in his eyes as he put his hands under the ultraviolet light and returned the greeting of the friendly IEC official sitting behind the table.
Then, with a profound spirit of liberation leaping in his heart, he waited patiently as the friendly IEC official at the next table sprayed invisible ink all over his fingertips.
From there, it was just a few short steps to the friendly IEC official at the next table, who stamped Fanie’s identity document with invisible ink before telling him to come back in four and a half hours because the ballot papers had not arrived yet.
Meanwhile, on thousands of television sets across the country, the SABC’s Election ’94 Channel 2 was crossing over to Gary Alphonso in Ulundi, who reported that it cloudy and overcast and that people were standing in a long line to vote.
But at a crowded polling station in the sprawling township of Vosloorus in the hyphenated province of Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging, international election observers had to be called in to defuse tensions as a group of furious IEC officials stood around blaming each other for leaving 252,000 Inkatha Freedom Party stickers behind at the office.
Fortunately, after several tense hours of negotiation, it was unanimously agreed that polling should go ahead without IFP stickers on the ballot papers, seeing as the ANC was going to win the election anyway.
On the other hand, in the remote district of Vergenoeg in the far Northrn Cape, polling officials were delighted to discover that rolls and rolls of Inkatha Freedom Party stickers had arrived as ordered. Unfortunately, there were no ballot papers to go with them.
After a series of urgent cellular phone calls to the IEC’s elite 24-hour standby operation squad, who weren’t in at the moment, it was unanimously decided that anyone who wanted to vote for a party other than the the IFP should just write their party’s name in the blank space around Chief Minister Magosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi’s head. Neatness would be taken into account.
Meanwhile, the SABC’s Election ’94 Channel 1 was crossing over to Danie Hefers in Pietersburg, who reported that it was dry and hot and that people were standing in a long line to rent an Arnold Schwarzenegger video.
As the historic day moved towards its logical conclusion – the declaration of another public holiday to cope with the backlog – the beleaguered IEC called an international media conference to dispute allegations that the election was turning out to be the biggest bureauratic shambles in South African history, next to the counting of votes after the election.
At the plush Gallagher’s Estate Conference Centre, midway between Midrand and Halfway House, an expectant hush fell over the gathering of lightly dozing media personalities, as an IEC official took the podium to announce that the conference would be delayed for up to three hours because the computers were down, and in any case, someone had just taken the podium.
But for all these minor hiccups, hitches, and bungles, millions of South Africans from all walks of life could only agree that Wednesday, April 27, 1994, had been one of the most moving days in the history of the nation.
“It’s incredible,” said Mrs Patience Mabandla, 66, of Alldays in the far Northern Transvaal. “I’ve only been standing in this queue for five and a half hours, and I’ve already moved 3.2 metres closer to the front. I’m definitely coming back tomorrow for more.”
*From “SA 27 April 1994”, published by Queillerie and compiled by André Brink.