South African Elections 25 years on

Yesterday the South African people voted in the 6th democratic national elections since the historic "free and fair" elections in 1994.

25 years ago I took two weeks off from my job as a local newspaper photographer in leafy Buckinghamshire to fly down to Johannesburg and photograph this momentous event.

My interest in South Africa and the immorality of the apartheid system had started years previously. I remember watching a news item by Michael Buerk on civil uprisings in the townships around Soweto in the mid 1980's, seeing the police attacking the protestors with sjamboks, tear gas and live rounds and wondering how this could be happening. With no internet it was difficult to hear about, let alone join, an anti-apartheid organisation and so I determined to save up and travel out there to see for myself what was going on. In 1991 I took a sabbatical from my job on the Bucks Free Press and flew to Johannesburg on my own to hitchhike around the country for 6 months, meeting white and black citizens, finding kindness and hospitality from pretty much everyone I met. There is so much I could write about that time but that is for another blog.

I flew into South Africa a few days before the elections and headed out to the remote area of Phuthaditjhaba on the border of Lesotho. Nelson Mandela was on the campaign trail and was due to speak at the local football stadium. I arrived in good time, though the stadium was already packed with people in high excitement.

While I had no accreditation I did have the advantage of having a couple of cameras and a camera bag slung around my neck and, to be brutally honest, being white, so I wasn't stopped from getting onto the pitch where Mr Mandela would speak. I took a few shots of the crowd and waited. And waited. After waiting nearly 6 hours, through thunderstorms, torrential rain and a bit of sunshine the crowds slowly started to leave, disappointed.

We all got in our cars and headed down the one road off the mountains. Until suddenly everyone stopped their cars wherever they could and raced back to the stadium. Word had got round that he was arriving. I dumped my car on the side of the road and ran back up the hill. It was dark now and my only flashgun had died during the rainstorms ( there was no shelter). Finally the man arrived. I remember he stood on the back of a flatbed trailer in the middle of an unlit stadium, I remember trying to get some pictures but it was impossible, I remember the complete hush of 40000 people listening to the future president's words but I can't remember a single thing he said. I was in awe.

The rest of the build up and the elections went as chaotically as you can imagine the first democratic elections in a developing country could go. My car was attacked at a polling station by a large group of disgruntled voters. People had been queuing for days to vote and, at this particular site, the uv ink voters had to put on their fingers that ensured participants didn't vote twice hadn't arrived so no one could start the process. Seeing me, along with a couple of others in the car, they thought we were from either the government or were electoral inspectors and took out their frustration by attempting to overturn the car with us in it. Thankfully they stopped and we decided it was probably best to find another polling station.

Watching native Africans finally have the chance to vote for their own party in their own country, after so many years of struggle was an amazing sight and an incredible feeling. I had been on the very margins of the whole process, more an interested bystander; it hadn't ever affected my day to day life but I felt totally humbled to see the process of change happening in front of me.


Sadly I have never been back to South Africa. Life got in the way and I concentrated on building up my own freelance career, starting a family. To be fair at the time South Africa wasn't exactly a holiday destination. (When I first went there South Africa merited 16 pages in the Lonely Planet guide to Africa.) But hopefully, sometime soon I will make time to go back and revisit the places that dominated my thoughts for so many years and set me on a path to witness this extraordinary event.