Tue 26 January 2021

Exactly a quarter of a century ago, South Africans went to the polls in elections that would bring Mandela to power and end almost 350 years of white domination. But it was tense and violent.

Stefan Simanowitz worked for the ANC’s Dept of Publicity and Information in Western Cape Regional office from 1992 to 1994

Twenty five years after South Africa’s miraculous first democratic elections, it’s easy to forget just how close the country came to civil war.

I was working for the ANC in Western Cape from 1992-4 and there were times – right up to election day itself – that, as Mandela said, it “seemed impossible until it was done”.

With weeks to go, violence in KwaZulu-Natal was escalating with the Inkartha Freedom Party (IFP) boycotting the election.

Instinctively we flinched. But then it dawned… The military – and the State – were no longer enemies of the people: they now belonged to the people.

Tensions were mounting in the so-called “homelands” of Ciskei, QwaQwa and Bophuthatswana.

Well-armed conservative Afrikaner militias were mobilising with Freedom Front leader, General Viljoen, admitting in 2001 that up to 60,000 armed men were preparing for a fight. “My own followers started pushing hard: they wanted an end to all talks, they wanted the war to start,” he told a newspaper.

White Separatist Terror Attacks

Two days before the election, a massive car bomb in Johannesburg killed nine people, including ANC candidate, Susan Keane and injured 92. The next day, 12 people were killed by bombs targeting black people in Germiston and Pretoria.

All of these attacks bore the hallmarks of white separatist groups.

Well-armed conservative Afrikaner militias were mobilising with up to 60,000 armed men preparing for a fight.

On 28 March, 55 people were killed and hundreds injured as violence erupted in Jo’burg as IFP supporters protested against the elections. In addition, 19 were killed as they marched on the ANC’s headquarters in what was called the Shell House Massacre.

With Inkatha boycotting the elections, more violence would be inevitable, but incredibly, after intense negotiations and with just a week to go, the IFP agreed to contest the election.

ANC supporters make their way to Raigar Park, Boksburg, South Africa for a memorial service for slain Communist Party leader Chris Hani in April 1993

Earlier in the month, another key moment had occurred with the failed attempt by some 4,000 Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) members to prop up the puppet government of Bophutatswana, whose leader was refusing to participate in the election.

Front page photos of the extrajudicial shooting at point blank range of three AWB members had a massive impact, helping to burst the myth of Afrikaner power.

A year earlier, Nelson Mandela had pulled the country from the brink of civil war after the assassination of Chris Hani. Ironically, his murder had the opposite effect of that intended, demonstrating that only the ANC could hold the country together.

At midnight on the eve of the election, I watched as the new flag was raised above Parliament in Cape Town, then slept for a few hours before heading back to the office.

After the polls closed, Mandela reportedly told a friend: “I should be jumping for joy, but I just feel a stillness. There is such a huge responsibility. So much to do.”

We commit ourselves to the construction of a complete, just and lasting peace… The time for the healing of the wounds had come.

Nelson Mandela

Whilst a massive ANC majority was never in doubt, the declaration of the results was nevertheless eye-watering and emotional.

Thousands gathered on Grand Parade on the night of 1 May, our jubilation overshadowing any disappointment at the ANC’s emphatic loss to the National Party in Western Cape.

Victory and its Responsibilities

On 10 May, I was part of the crowd at Union Buildings as Mandela took the oath of office.

In his inaugural address, Madiba said: “We succeeded to take our last steps to freedom in conditions of relative peace. We commit ourselves to the construction of a complete, just and lasting peace…The time for the healing of the wounds had come.”

Just after Mandela was sworn in came a moment that still gives me goosebumps. Three jets flew low over the crowd followed by four helicopters, each towing the new flag.

Nelson Mandela being sworn in as the first black President of South Africa on May 10

Instinctively we flinched. But, then it dawned. The military – and the State – were no longer enemies of the people: they now belonged to the people.

I came back home soon after that, but feel deeply privileged to have been in South Africa at this remarkable time and to have worked alongside so many courageous people who sacrificed so much so that their country could be free.

As Wordsworth put it: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be a part of it was very heaven.”

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