My editors gave me a bulletproof vest when they sent me to cover the first free elections in South Africa’s history in the spring of 1994. They – and much of the world – feared there would be a race war before the Afrikaners would allow Nelson Mandela to become president.
My first impressions were that I had landed in the middle of a scene from “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” – a post-apocalyptic world where homes were protected by walls topped with razor wire and broken glass, and youths roamed the streets with sjamboks, large whips made of rhinoceros hide. But soon I felt the wind of ubuntu – the spirit of good will – caress this country riven by apartheid. Blacks, whites, Indians and coloreds (South Africans of mixed race) celebrated the unyoking of racist barriers at every institution in the nation.
I saw a black woman and a white man intertwined on the beach in Durban, a sight that would have been unthinkable before Mandela’s release. A nightclub in a white suburb of Johannesburg was transformed into the Getahead Shebeen, an illicit bar where South Africans across race and class boogied to an African jazz and blues band while swigging beer from cans and Southern Comfort from tin cups; there were an estimated 7,000 shebeens in the black township of Soweto alone.
I will never forget the contrast between the splendor of Cape Town, perched high above the meeting of two oceans, and the squalor of the townships like Guguletu, where Stanford University student Amy Biehl had been stoned to death one afternoon after dropping off some black friends. Or Khayelitsha, where between 500,000 and 1.5 million people lived in shacks built out of refuse and rubble without toilets, running water, electricity or phones. The stench of human and animal waste overpowered the ocean breezes while black smoke swirled above mountains of burning garbage. Goats and children picked over what was left.
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There was no town in township – the shacks had no addresses, the streets had no names, and in Site C, home to 200,000 squatters, there was no post office. The poorest township resident spoke three or four languages and never gave up hope as long as Mandela was alive.
At the six-hour rally for Mandela in Soweto before the election, the crowd of more than 70,000 sang, danced, trilled and chanted in Zulu:
“Mandela mabuye!” Mandela is back!
“Sekunjalo ke nako!” Now is the time!
Mandela spoke in measured tones that brought a wave of calm and optimism to the crowd: “We recognize diversity of language, religion and culture as a source of strength. We have suffered together under racialism, we have waged the struggle together … I love you all. I sincerely wish there was enough space in my shirt to put you all in my pocket. There is a grandfather here that considers you my children and grandchildren.”
Never in my 37-year career have I felt so moved as I did in that stadium, where I saw black and white, Indian and colored rise to their feet, right fist clenched, and heard them sing the national anthem “ Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika ” (Lord bless Africa), with voices sweeter than sugar cane.
And I won’t forget the joyful face of Freedom Phaphu, an unemployed Soweto man with three children who said he had been beaten so badly in police custody with a rubber baton he lost the use of two fingers and he could no longer work as a mechanic. He too was infused with Mandela’s spirit of reconciliation.
“They wanted to break my spirit,” he said. “I’m thinking about all those things, about all who died, but I’m not angry. Today I feel very happy. Today I feel something different, something new, something we’ve been waiting for … I can feel it inside.”
I can still feel that power of that day – and those weeks – inside. I felt proud to be a member of the human race and humbled to be a witness to history. I wouldn’t trade it for a million dollars, because Mandela’s magic, and message of unity and reconciliation, will never die.