I woke up early on the morning of 27 April 1994 and switched on the TV to watch South Africans vote in their new democracy. My husband, two and a half year old daugher and I had been living in the Flat B51 in the Doctors Quarters at Tygerberg Hospital for almost a year – probably the first black African family to live in the Doctors Quarters. Together we watched Mandela put his vote into the ballot box. We saw the joy of the old lady who was supported as she walked in to make cast her vote for the very first time – in the evening of her life. We watched lines that snaked around buildings, with voters, calm and waiting to change the history of their country. I went outside with my daughter to see what was happening at the voting station at the Nurses Hostel. Tears streamed down my face – it was hard to believe we were witnessing such a momentous event!
I felt such a strong kinship to my African brothers and sisters. The South African struggle had been on our radar for years – in the news, in the music (Makeba, Masuka, Bra Hugh, Stimela, Sankomota, Bra Caiphas and Sis Letta), in the literature we read (Alex la Guma, Lewis Nkosi, Eskia Mphahlele, Paton, Fugard, Mazisi Kunene…) and even though we had not really fully understood the complexity of the society we wanted them to be free! In University in Nairobi we had put on performances of South African poetry and drama – Sizwe Bansi is Dead remains etched in my mind. I had attended the 10th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising at the Cathedral in Nairobi in 1986 – and the concert that evening. I was in Lesotho when Mandela was freed and we watched that on TV and celebrated! The South African struggle was the our struggle.
I related to the first time voters because even though I was 30 years old, I had never voted in my homeland Uganda. Amin came into power the year that I turned 7, and for many years there were no elections (and I was too young to vote). By the time they had elections and I was old enough to vote I was not in the country. I wanted so badly to be able to vote, to help shape history but all I could do was watch from the sidelines. It felt as if everyone had been invited to a party except us.
I really wanted things to go smoothly – for a miracle to happen. The lead up to the elections had been tense. We had watched the CODESA negotiations go forwards and backwards; the assasination of Chris Hani and the leadership that handled the situation with grace even as they felt the pain; the fighting between Inkhata and the ANC in Gaueng and KZN; the AWB storming the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park in an attempt to derail the negotiations; the AWB ‘invading’ Boputhatswana – and being stopped in the tracks by the brave soldier who dared to shoot and kill some of the members after they had killed many people; the attack on the St James church in Kenilworth. I sometimes joked with Victor saying, “Thank God Tygerberg is near the airport. If things go wrong, we just might be able to make it there and go back home!!!” So I watched, and I prayed and waited for a miracle – and it happened. It was the most peaceful elections I had ever witnessed!
21 years ago I was a foreigner in this country cheering on in the sidelines, so proud of my brothers and sisters and what they had achieved. In the years that followed I started to understand the legacy of apartheid – the deep scars it left on the souls of the people – as I worked with schools in Khayelitsha, Lwandle, Nomzamo, Khayamandi, Mbekweni and on farms in Paarl and Wellington; as I lived in the grounds of a hospital that was built to keep people seperate; as I worked with NGOs, Government Officials, UCT and UWC.
Today I look back and see that a lot has been achieved. Oppressive laws have been changed, houses built, access created. There are more black people in places – whether it is in descion making positions in organisations, or when you go to the Waterfront or a shopping mall or a University – and a lot still needs to be done. As things go, South Africa is still a very very young country.
Today’s celebrations are coloured by a lot of new debates and protests. There are the Xenophobic attacks that have reared their heads again creating responses from all over the world. There are the increased racist attacks that have happened in the past year. There has been a vast number of service delivery protests that have taken place lately. The shadow of Marikana looms large. There are the movements in many of the Universities challenging the lack of real transformation. There are many officials who have been charged with corruption. There is the rise of South Africa as an economic power on the continent AND the obstacles that South Africa has created in the visa process for visitors from other African countries – even though South Africans can visit most of those countries without visas. A large focus has been put into the setting up of new laws and policies to create a legal framework that can support change. It is now time to also work on the process of healing the nation so that the self-hatred that leads to black on black violence can become self-love. It is time for South Africans to really embrace Africa – after all they are one of the few countries that have Africa as their surname!