South African Elections 30 years on

30 years ago today I was in South Africa covering probably the most important political election in living memory.


My journey there, however, started years before. As a child I remember watching Michael Buerk (then the BBC South Africa correspondent) report on the apartheid regime, seeing the horror of the immoral iniquity through his lens and realising there was a lot to learn about this beautiful, terrible country.


Pre-internet it wasn't easy to get information easily. Of course I knew the name Mandela, I knew about segregation and inequality but slowly I learned of Sharpeville, of Biko, of Desmond Tutu, of Eugene Terre'Blanche and many others. I learned of political parties on all sides, the NP, FP, DP, ANC, IFP, UDF and the ridiculous AWB,. On the news I saw reports of necklacings and stabbings in the townships - these unfathomable places to a white kid living a fairly comfortable existence - and realised things weren't as obviously simple as I thought. The murder of Stompie Moeketsi, allegedly at Winnie Mandela's command, complicated matters further for me and so I decided I had to go there to see for myself.

 In 1990 South Africa took up a whole 16 pages in the Lonely Planet guide to Africa . No one went there for holidays. I bought the book, cut out the relevant pages, left my job on a local newspaper and headed off to Johannesburg. The next six months were spent hitch-hiking around the whole of the country, meeting people from all walks of life: black, white, Malay, Indian, Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, Boer, salt-dicks (one foot in Africa, one foot in Europe and, well, you can figure the rest!) Everyone treated me with amazing hospitality and warmth - as long as the topic of politics didn't arise. It was a time for me to discover, in a very naïve and small way, what made this country, on the cusp of enormous change, tick.

 Four years later when I heard that the first "free and fair" elections were to be held I knew I had to go back to be there to witness it.

 I arrived two weeks before the election and almost immediately had some great fortune. I wanted to go back to Lesotho (made famous later by Prince Harry...) to deliver prints to some people in the townships I'd take 4 years previously. While there I learned that Nelson Mandela was holding a rally a few days later in a football stadium in Phuthaditjhaba over the other side of the Drakensburg Mountains. I turned up at the stadium with no press pass or accreditation but managed to sneak through a passageway onto the football field where a flatbed truck was waiting to host Mandela.



And so I waited… and waited. For 6 hours we waited in pouring rain and occasional sun until everyone decided en mass to give up and leave. High up in the mountains there was only one road in or out so the traffic was chaos. No one could move, cars were strewn everywhere where they had been dumped in an effort to get to the rally. Suddenly there was a commotion and rumours spread that he was, indeed, about to arrive. Cue several thousand people abandoning vehicles once more and streaming into the stadium.


It was twilight now and there was no lighting to illuminate the prospective president of this troubled country. In the rain my single flashgun had packed up and the film I had was no use in such gloomy conditions. Even though it was such a monumental occasion – here I was, metres from the most famous man in the world – I can’t remember a single thing he said. I can’t remember how long he spoke or when or how he left. I just remember the noise of the crowd’s applause, chanting and singing, their obvious joy for what was finally happening to their country and their love for the man who was going to guide them.


A couple of weeks later it was the first day of the elections. While the voting would last for three days, many people had been queueing at least a day earlier just to make sure they had the opportunity to cast their first ever vote. I travelled from township to township to get shots of the queues and occasionally, people casting their votes. This wasn’t as easy as first thought as many polling stations wouldn’t allow us in. As the day wore on voters were getting more frustrated as they found out the fingerprint machines or voting slips hadn’t arrived. At one polling station our car was mistaken for an election official’s vehicle, and we were set upon, the crowd rocking the car trying to turn it over with us inside until we managed to convince them we were Press.


On that trip I drove into some of the most deprived townships around Johannesburg. Everyone has heard of Soweto but areas like Phola Park, Thokosa and Katlehong were far poorer with little in the way of facilities and the site of constant battles between the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the African National Congress (ANC). However, the mood here was buoyant even though the crowds stretched as far as you could see over the horizon.



And that was it, the first elections held that all South Africans were allowed to participate in. The ANC won a landslide victory, Mandela became president and the party has remained in power, for good or ill, ever since.


I wish I could remember more of what went on during those three weeks, I wish I had some pictures of Mandela at the rally, I wish I’d looked after the slides and negatives better and could find more of them from that time.


And I wish I’d been back to visit a country that occupied my thoughts for so many years.


Maybe one day...

P.S. I tried to get a press pass to the Mandela concert in 1990 at Wembley Stadium. I thought the best way to get one was to contact the ANC branch in London to see if they would allow me one. Again in the days before the internet, I rang directory enquiries for the number of the ANC in London. After getting through to them I delivered my pitch about how invested in the anti-apartheid campaign I had been etc. Eventually the person at the end of the line stopped me mid-flow to tell me they were ANC couriers and deliveries and didn't have a clue what I was talking about.

Embarrassed, I bought a ticket and watched with the rest of the crowd.