When 27 April 1994 dawned, it wasn’t the first time I’d voted. That was in 1992, in the “yes/no” referendum, when the Nationalist government asked the then voting public for “permission” to officially end apartheid. Yes – it does sound warped that they needed our blessing to put paid to a system that was doomed to crumble anyway, but that’s what happened.
In 1992, we were a multiracial class of journalism students in Pretoria. We were beyond thrilled to be caught up in the headiness of covering rallies, protests and marches in the run-up to the referendum, and then the vote itself. It made us feel like “proper” journos.
As the seat of Nat power, there was a lot of heavily conservative sentiment floating around the nation’s capital at the time. The “vote no” cabal was quite impassioned and vocal, and many of our fellow Pretoria students were (to put it mildly) a lot less liberal than their counterparts in Johannesburg and Cape Town were. So we were seen as scruffy, jeans-wearing “Commies” by a lot of them. It didn’t matter one jot to us – we liked being seen as anti-establishment rebels.
When the “yes” vote was confirmed by a landslide, we threw a massive and suitably raucous house party, as only students can do. That was my first taste of the euphoria surrounding the promise of democracy. I might still have a scuffed and faded “Stem ja [Vote yes]” poster floating around my garage somewhere.
Fast forward two years to 1994, and I was covering the first democratic vote as a cub reporter in Springs, on Johannesburg’s East Rand (which would later be renamed Ekurhuleni).
The excitement in the air was palpable – and this was in a Conservative Party-controlled town that had recently vowed “never on a Sunday” when the town council voted on allowing cinemas to open seven days a week.
The voting queues in KwaThema, Duduza (a township that was still scarred from being the site of a horrific “necklacing” incident a few years earlier) and Tsakane, as well as the then Indian section of Bakerton, coiled around blocks and stretched for kilometres. There was the sweet smell of change and jubilation in the air. We ran around trying to capture the zeitgeist with our film cameras, rushing back to get the black-and-white photos developed in our darkroom. It was a great time to be a journalist, albeit a baby one.
Those of us who were around on 27 April 1994 will never forget where we were that day – like on the day of Nelson Mandela’s release or JFK’s assassination. We knew that this was a turning point in our nation’s – and our own – history.
But let’s be honest: for some of us, the significance of Freedom Day has become blunted with time. Perhaps this is due to disillusionment with how the dream, as the poet Langston Hughes and, later, the writer Mark Gevisser put it, has been deferred in the new democratic order.
This year, we will be celebrating Freedom Day under lockdown and not really free, in the physical sense of the word. We also don’t have full social and economic freedom, to be honest – inequality persists, and will likely get even worse as our economy contracts due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But I for one will be revisiting that day 26 years ago when hope, excitement and possibility lay thick in the air, as we collectively envisioned a brave new future. I will pause for a moment to be grateful that we do have freedom – freedom to think what we please, say and do what we please (as long as it’s legal), listen to and watch what we please, live and work where we please, and fraternise with whomever we please.
Our country isn’t perfect, but at least we’re all in this big, crazy boat together – during and after lockdown. Happy Freedom Day, everyone!