Memories of a South African Election Day

I remember his smile. His fist punched up in triumph.

I stood among the people crowded in a downtown Johannesburg hotel in 1994 who were dancing and rejoicing with Nelson Mandela as he celebrated South Africa’s first all-race elections and his election as president. It was the night of Mandela’s victory party. It was electric.

As I mourn the death of Mandela, I can’t help but keep in mind what the life of this great man meant to so many. I didn’t get a chance to spend time with him personally, but I did meet some of the people he fought to free.

I was helping to cover the elections for The Washington Post, and I started out early on Election Day, April 27, 1994. I would spend the day following a family who lived in the black township of Soweto. The headline of the morning newspaper, the Sowetan, read: “FREEDOM in our lifetime.”

“Can you believe being 45 and for the first time voting in your own country?” Lindumuzi Mngoma asked.

The Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan talks about the life and legacy of former South African president Nelson Mandela. (Thomas LeGro/The Washington Post)

Mandela would sacrifice so much for Mngoma and his family. His was a long walk to freedom, and the people I met understood and respected his sacrifice.

We need to remember how bad things were. I was so incredibly affected by the poverty I saw because of apartheid. But I was also so incredibly inspired by the people who learned to thrive amid such oppression. Under apartheid, Mngoma had to make sure he was out of downtown Johannesburg before 10 p.m. because he was black. He could not live where he wanted, or work where he wanted, or even play his cello with any South African orchestras.

As Mngoma searched for a polling place that day, he said, “For the first time in my life, I feel like a human being.”

But it was Mngoma’s 20-year-old son, Bandile, who would leave the most lasting impression on me. Nineteen years later, I still remember his visions of what freedom would mean for him, and I still weep as I recall how he had to live as a young adult. His story and that of others made me respect Mandela even more; Mandela was the face of the masses who desired freedom.

As I wrote in 1994, Bandile said Mandela’s efforts to free black South Africans had brought them democracy. And having those democratic rights meant, among other things, that he could freely do something as simple as pack his suitcase the way he wanted. Bandile recalled that once, when he was on his way to school in Lesotho — a country completely surrounded by South Africa — border guards rifling through his bags held him up for hours as they listened to cassette tapes he was carrying to make sure they contained no anti-government messages. The guards only found rap and R&B songs.

During another trip across the border, Bandile said, he watched a guard squirt out all his toothpaste in a purported search for drugs.

Mandela fought to free the Mngomas from such indignities, from not being able to do things that so many take for granted.

On Election Day, the Mngoma family spent nearly three hours waiting to vote. I remember how quiet it was, despite the hundreds of people standing in line.

After Bandile emerged from voting, he smiled. “It feels like you are in a dream,” he said. “It feels . . . ”

He couldn’t finish his sentence. We all stood for several minutes in silence. Words couldn’t convey our feelings.

When I think of Mandela, I recall the Mngomas. As we mourn the passing of a great leader, we should focus not just on the man, but on his mission. It was his desire that people be able to live their lives with dignity and self-respect.

“I am no more virtuous or self-sacrificing than the next man, but I found that I could not even enjoy the poor and limited freedoms I was allowed when I knew my people were not free,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom.” “When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. . . . I have walked the long road to freedom.”

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.”
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