The deadly prelude to the first free elections in South Africa

Thirty years ago, black South Africans voted for the first time as the country celebrated the monumental birth of a democracy. As I write this, South Africa is bathed in warm winter sunlight and South Africans are free.

That day, April 27, 1994, changed the lives of everyone in the country. I was there. But I can only vaguely remember it.

However, I do remember vividly the cost in human life that led to that victorious day, when what amounted to a proxy war fueled by elements of the apartheid state pitted ethnic groups against each other. Those who hoped the bloodshed would derail democratic negotiations conveniently called it black-on-black violence.

Four years passed between Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and those first real elections. In that time, as the apartheid government slowly agreed the terms of its dissolution with the political leaders it had long sought to repress, 14,000 people died violently.

Perhaps many South Africans have chosen to forget. Younger people simply may not know. But this is what I saw in the months leading up to the vote.

Entire neighborhoods were abandoned as people fled their homes. Nameless corpses littered empty streets for hours before morgue cars collected them, displayed on unpaved roads as a warning for all to see.

Nine days before the elections, the country was burning. It was a final push between warring factions. The Inkatha Freedom Party, a powerful Zulu political and cultural movement, was preparing to boycott the vote, saying the new deal gave too little power to territories like KwaZulu, where it had long ruled. The bodies piled up.

That day, April 18, 1994, I was on Khumalo Street in Thokoza, a black township east of Johannesburg.

To my left lay Ken Oosterbroek, mortally wounded, while to my right, Greg Marinovich clutched his chest, holding on for dear life. Friends and fellow photographers who had dedicated their careers to documenting the violent and agonizing agony of apartheid lay dead and wounded.

From 1990 to 1994, nearly 700 people died in Thokoza and hundreds died on that same street. He was one among many. Today, a monument on Khumalo Street bears the names of the dead, including Ken’s.

When I visited the monument at the end of 2016, it served as a shelter for homeless people, who slept next to the inscribed marble wall. It has since been rehabilitated by former members of the Self-Defense Units, residents (mostly supporters of Mandela’s African National Congress) who defended their communities against supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Macdonald Mabizela, 48, then a teenage wrestler and now a caretaker, explained how they chased away the vagrants, cleaned the monument and rebuilt part of the perimeter wall that had collapsed after someone crashed into it.

Nelson Mandela addressed the nation that night, calling for calm and an end to bloodshed, a presidential act before becoming president. Shortly after, the Inkatha Freedom Party announced that it would participate in the elections. The ballots were printed without a box for the party. Decals were quickly added. It was clear evidence of how close South Africa had come to civil war.

South Africans voted and it was a peaceful day, that’s what I remember. I documented it and didn’t understand what should have been a life-changing experience. He had just buried a friend and another was recovering from three gunshot wounds. I voted in Katlehong, just a six-minute drive from where Ken was killed, sent my film to the Associated Press office, and sat next to Greg. Two days of voting passed in a blur and I was barely present.

South Africans will vote again this week, in a national election less predictable than any since 1994. It is important to remember the past in times like these and honor those who paid the ultimate price as political figures negotiated their way to power and democracy. .

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