At the Polling Station with Nelson Mandela, 1994

Source: ANC Archives

by Meyer Brownstone

My first and most memorable encounter with Nelson Mandela coincided with a moment marking one of his basic goals - the equal right to vote in South Africa. The moment was Nelson Mandela voting for the first time in April of 1994, in a polling station in a small community in Kwa Zulu-Natal. Together with David Gallagher, an Oxfam Canada field officer in Southern Africa, we were the sole international election observers in the polling station in which all other governmental and non-governmental observers were excluded.

Why was Oxfam Canada the only organization invited to participate in this profound historic event? Certainly the answer is found largely in the long history of Oxfam’s commitment to the ending of what we coined as “political poverty”, one of the fundamental foundations for systems of inequality and repression such as apartheid, signifying the absence of any semblance of democracy and the universal franchise.

More specifically it lies in the application of this understanding of poverty to our lengthy support of the struggle of the African National Congress and its support groups such as the trade unions. Oxfam’s support took the form of supporting ANC related groups living in exile in Canada who carried on the struggle from here; allocating funds to assist these groups in their work; and sending Oxfam staff to maintain contact with the ANC (in the context of a brutal apartheid system in South Africa our presence was often clandestine). We also worked in cooperation with other Canadian NGOs, religious organizations, supportive parliamentarians, and trade unions.  

A second factor in this extraordinary role for Oxfam Canada was its developed expertise in electoral systems and election monitoring in a wide range of African and other countries emerging from colonization and internal repression. This work was found to be credible by the UN and Elections Canada. Members of Oxfam Canada including both John Saul, an internationally recognized authority on Southern Africa politics, and I helped in the planning of post-apartheid local government in South Africa (primarily Johannesburg and Soweto). This added further to Oxfam Canada’s credibility.

And so David Gallagher and I arrived very early at the polling station against a perilous background of the electoral process. Violence preceded the elections in Kwa-Zulu Natal between supporters of the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party of Chief Buthelezi who aspired to leadership of the country. Buthelezi’s candidacy had been welcomed by supporters of apartheid. Our monitoring group was able to witness some of the violence as the Inkatha supporters attempted to disrupt ANC rallies using violent means and the complete and deliberate failure of the South African Army to do much about such disruption. Almost to the last minute, the Inkatha Freedom Party threatened to boycott the election. It finally agreed to participate almost too late to prepare proper ballots and other materials as well as staff polling stations in Kwa-Zulu Natal. It seemed clear that concessions had been made regarding Buthelezi’s role in the future government and the outcome of the elections in the state. It seemed also that this motivated Mr. Mandela to vote in the region.

As we approached the polling station we found a very long line of voters waiting for the polls to open. People told us that they were there in extraordinary numbers to be able to vote where Nelson Mandela cast his historic ballots. The international press was also there in large numbers but frustrated that it would not be able to witness and photograph the dramatic event. Mr. Mandela arrived and proceeded quite normally to have his voting documents verified as did two others who voted after him - Jacob Zuma and his wife. There was the momentous secret marking of the ballot and an even more momentous dropping of the ballot into the ballot box by a smiling Nelson Mandela, triumphant at the end of his long journey to electoral empowerment. I immediately congratulated him and thanked him for his great contribution on behalf of Oxfam Canada and the people of Canada and basked in the warmth of his beautiful smile.

The great moment was over, although he did vote again in a second ballot for state elections and then went outdoors for a ceremonial dropping of a ballot to give the international press their photographs. But photos and video of our participation had already been taken inside the polling station, along with television coverage. I treasure these as records of my personal encounter with one of the great figures of history. The 1994 election and the exercising of Mr. Mandela`s vote celebrated Oxfam Canada`s historic position and work on the liberation of all peoples. 

Meyer Brownstone is Oxfam Canada Chair Emeritus and was Chair of Oxfam Canada’s Board during the years of the anti-apartheid struggle.