Gail Hovey first went to South Africa in 1966 on the Frontier Internship Program of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA. While there, she continued her relationship with the Southern Africa Committee in New York and its publication, Southern Africa magazine. Hovey and Don Morlan, both recent graduates of Union Theological Seminary, were assigned to the Tsonga Presbyterian Church/Swiss Mission. Even at an isolated school, Lemana, located some 300 miles north of Johannesburg, they were watched.
Finally the Department of Bantu Education called on the church to withdraw them from the school, saying the two were propagating "their own critical view of the generally accepted policies and established customs in this country." Hovey was not able to return to South Africa until after Nelson Mandela's release in 1990. By this time she was living in Hawai'i, and she traveled halfway around the world to observe the 1994 elections.
As I stepped aboard the South African Airways plane, my thoughts drifted back to 1969. I had been one of a group of demonstrators picketing the airline to prevent it from landing in the United States as long as apartheid prevailed. That particular effort didn't succeed, but landing rights were finally blocked by the anti-apartheid act in 1986. Now, amazingly, I was boarding one of the airline's planes, flying to South Africa to observe the historic elections of April 26-28, 1994.
I got very little sleep on the long flight from New York. Almost all the passengers were on the same mission, had a history of anti-apartheid activism, and were as filled with anticipation as I was. All of us, in large and small ways, had been looking forward to this day for years if not decades. It was a kind of homecoming.
On arrival in South Africa, I was welcomed by my old friend Molly Bill, whom I had met along with her husband François in 1966 when we worked together in what was then the Northern Transvaal. The family's arena for action against apartheid was the ecumenical church. Their son Charles was forced into exile, and François spent 16 weeks in solitary confinement before being transferred to the white male section of the feared Diepkloof Prison outside Johannesburg in the mid-1980s. Already fluent in a local language, Tsonga, when I met her, Molly took up applied linguistics. Her specialty became training teachers, in what had been white schools, to teach Zulu and South Sotho, prominent languages of the newly named Gauteng province.
A resident of Johannesburg, Molly took me to St Paul's United Church where the preacher's text was from Micah, "beating swords into ploughshares." On the way home we stopped by the supermarket, where whites were frantically buying up canned goods and candles in fear that water and electricity would be cut off amid chaos and violence surrounding the election.
It was not unreasonable to anticipate a certain level of disorder. The Independent Election Commission had had just four months to organize the election. At the end of 1993, it had one employee; by the time the election was held, it had 200,000. There were 9,000 voting stations around the country, some of them still being selected as we arrived. National, regional, and district presiding officers had to be chosen, with two to 26 voting officials per district. Eighty percent of them had been appointed in the preceding week. Voters had to be educated: a substantial majority of the electorate was illiterate and 80 percent of them had never voted before.
As if these challenges were not enough, 18 parties had registered to participate in the election. The one dangerously missing was the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) led by Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi. The IFP and its supporters had been engaged in a long and bloody battle in KwaZulu- Natal against supporters of the United Democratic Front and the ANC. The Sowetan reported on April 20 that some 20,000 people had been killed in KwaZulu-Natal since 1985, including 172 in January 1994, 153 in February, and 331 in March. Extraordinary pressures were being exerted to persuade the IFP to participate in the election and end the violence.
The American Committee on Africa contingent of which I was a part included South Africans Jennifer Davis and Dumisani Kumalo, each of whom had spent decades in exile; Betsy Landis, a member of the board since the 1950s, who had become an expert on Namibia; and Prexy Nesbitt, who had played many roles in the solidarity movement over a quarter century. Aleah Bacquie, a member of ACOA's staff, had already been in South Africa for much of the year. At the request of President Frank Chikane of the South African Council of Churches, Bacquie had been seconded to that organization. She worked in communications, helping counter the minority government's continuing attempts to mislead the international community about progress in the country.
We were briefed first in Johannesburg. Davis, Nesbitt, and I had been assigned to KwaZulu-Natal. We drove to Durban for a second briefing and met colleagues from Oxfam Canada with whom we were paired. At last, we were briefed on site at our base in Empangeni.
The ACOA team was in South Africa as part of a larger observer presence organized by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Concerned about our safety, the organizers had not wanted us to observe in KwaZulu-Natal. Jennifer Davis ended the heated discussion about this by saying simply, " If people are brave enough to vote, they deserve to have observers." At the eleventh hour, the Inkatha Freedom Party joined the election. New ballots were printed. The tension and fear in the region diminished quickly, and we were able to travel from one polling place to another without incident.
Our territory was rural: green rolling hills, potholed dirt roads, isolated schoolhouses, and tiny villages. Our job was to report immediately to an election official any incident that might compromise the standard of " free and fair" and to submit a daily record of our experiences.
Virtually everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. At Sundumbili Plaza, for example, an enormous tent was set up in the middle of a field for a double polling station, and the large, orderly crowd waited outside. But when we went inside, the presiding officer informed us that not a single person had voted. The generators had blown out the machines that could read the invisible ink on voters' hands that was intended to ensure that no one voted more than once. People got busy; the generator was repaired; new machines were brought. When the voting finally started, it went so fast that they ran out of ballots three times. The people waited, the wind rose, the tent shuddered and sighed, but the supply of ballots was replenished and the tent held.
Seemingly endless variations on this experience were repeated each day as we went out from Empangeni. What was at stake was in evidence again and again. We saw it in the ingenuity and perseverance of election officials. We saw it in the voters' faces. " We are going to vote," Mabungu, a waiting voter, said. " They can't kill all of us." " Thank God that before I died, I tasted voting." They queued up on sidewalks, stood in single lines that snaked like rivers or squared the corners of enormous fields. " I have waited for this day for all my life and I will wait for all the day if needs be," said another voter, Mashigo.
When eight white policemen burst into the polling place at Eshowe Town Hall, the fears and suspicion that had plagued the buildup to the election were suddenly manifest again. I felt the general panic. What was wrong? What had we failed to observe? And then I laughed out loud as the officers disarmed and stood in line to cast their ballots.
"It is good to get to vote while you are still alive," said Klaas.
Isithebe School ran short of ballots. Election officers and the police - both the South African police and the KwaZulu police - argued about what to do and someone was dispatched to bring more ballots. It was the first time that the South African police had been on what was KwaZulu police turf. The South African Defense Force was also present. Feared and hated until this moment, it was suddenly the welcome, neutral stabilizer.
"Now I can die with happiness in my heart," said 80-year-old Samuel Bhene. " Now I can walk like a real man."
The people came; the ballot boxes filled and were sealed with sealing wax. They switched to collecting ballots in mail bags. The people came, and the people in the great majority put Mandela in the box.
Every official observer's experience was different in the details. But all of us had participated in an event that marked both closure and conception, a rare moment that represented suffering and sacrifice beyond reckoning, courage and promise that only time would measure.
And so at last, after more than eight decades, with generations of petitioners, protestors, diplomacy, and armed struggle, the African National Congress won a resounding victory across the country. Nelson Mandela became the first president of all of South Africa's people. Some observers were able to stay on to hear Mandela's May 2 acceptance speech and attend the party that followed and the May 10 inauguration. I was among those who had to fly home before that. But my colleagues and indispensable friends Jennifer Davis and Dumisani Kumalo went to the party, which was the next best thing to being there myself, especially when Jen faxed me the news:
As we waited the mood was wonderful - lots of our old friends - who hugged and kissed us and kept saying over and over, " Thank you." " We couldn't have done it without you." . . . [Zambia's Kenneth] Kaunda was there and asked where George [Houser] was, sent his greetings. . . . The ANC choir sang wonderful songs in the background. The mood kept building and the room filling. The walls were lined . . . with TV sets, and with thousands of black, yellow and gold balloons.
Jennifer went on to say that President Mandela spoke with a strong but not a strident voice. He reached out to the other parties, saying that all leaders would be needed, were " worthy South Africans." He spoke of the legendary heroes across the generations and said that the people, with their courage, had won this night. He called on all South Africans to celebrate the birth of a new nation, but he asked them to do it in a peaceful and respectful way. " This is a joyous night for the human spirit."
Then it was party time, Jennifer wrote. "We did it. We did it. Hundreds of people hugging and kissing, waving little ANC and SA flags. Dancing. It was beautiful. DK's and Bacquie's faces filled with joy."
This excerpt, taken from No Easy Victories for web presentation on allAfrica.com and noeasyvictories.org, may be freely reproduced if credit is given to No Easy Victories. Please mention that the book is available from http://www.noeasyvictories.org and http://www.africaworldpressbooks.com.