Behind the Scenes: Johannesburg, May 1994. It’s a new day in South Africa. Historic change electrifies the air. Apartheid, the government’s official policy of racial segregation, has finally come to an end, and Nelson Mandela is about to be elected the country’s first black president in nearly three hundred fifty years.
The emotion surging through Jeffrey Aaronson as he photographs this momentous occasion mimics that of the country’s new flag shimmering in the wind.
It’s impossible to repress his awe, remembering it had been just four years earlier that Nelson Mandela had been released from prison after serving a 27-year sentence for leading the armed struggle against apartheid.
Mandela’s prophetic words, uttered upon his release from prison couldn’t ring more true today:
“Our march to freedom is irreversible”
It is a highly charged time in South Africa, and truly a miracle that this election has even come to pass. Thousands of people have been killed since Mandela’s release from prison–most during violent clashes between black South Africans, as supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) have battled for power. The white minority Afrikaner party has also played a large part in this deadly equation.
On the first day of Jeffrey’s arrival in Johannesburg he experiences the horrors of this power struggle firsthand, as a car bomb explodes near him. It is a last-ditch effort by Afrikaner radicals to try to scare blacks away from the voting booths, hoping to prevent the end of white minority rule. Lives are destroyed and nerves shattered from the blast, but nothing can prevent the tidal surge for equality already in motion.
At first Jeffrey is eyed with distain as he photographs voters in Soweto, a township representing decades of oppression, but after explaining that he has come all the way from American to photograph what he imagines to be one of the best days of their lives, he is soon wrapped in acceptance.
A man holding The Sowetan newspaper proudly poses and points to the bold headline, “FREEDOM IN OUR LIFETIME.”
As early election results begin confirming what most had hoped and assumed, Mandela far in the lead, euphoria sweeps through the streets of Johannesburg. When De Klerk finally calls Mandela to officially concede defeat, celebrations erupt throughout the city and country.
Inside the ballroom of ANC headquarters, Mandela stands on the stage next to Coretta Scott King and puts into words the sentiments of millions of South Africans:
“This is one of the most important moments in the life of our country. I stand here before you filled with deep pride and joy: — pride in the ordinary, humble people of this country. You have shown such a calm, patient determination to reclaim this country as your own, – and joy that we can loudly proclaim from the rooftops — free at last!”
It isn’t until a week later that Mandela’s inauguration finally takes place in the country’s capital, Pretoria. May 10, 1994 is like no day Jeffrey can ever remember. He has photographed presidential elections in several countries, but this election is much more: this is the birth of a new nation.
Mandela’s inauguration brings together the largest number of Heads of State since the funeral of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. For one single day kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers, and dictators all put aside their political differences and come to honor a man being bestowed the enormous responsibilities of leading a new South Africa into the new century.
The political prisoner-turned-president has won an overwhelming mandate and everyone wants to be part of the celebration.
The energy radiating from Pretoria is palpable as thousands of anxious people fill the steps of the capitol. When the roar of M-16 jets flies high above the crowd, spraying the bright colors representing the new flag of South Africa, it signals overwhelming support for the new commander in chief. Never before has a black person in South Africa been treated with such an honor.
Jeffrey pauses for a moment to relish this moment, then lifts his camera to capture the flyover, followed by helicopters hovering overhead with the country’s new flag.
The six colors of the flag, red, green, black, yellow, white, and blue, along with its Y-shape design, are meant to symbolize the convergence of diverse elements within South African society, taking the road ahead in unity.
When Nelson Mandela takes the stage to deliver his inaugural address, the crowd erupts into a fever of support. The impossible is happening and the significance is not lost on anyone.
“Your Majesties, Your Highnesses, Distinguished Guests, Comrades and Friends,” Mandela begins. “Today, all of us do, by our presence here, and by our celebrations in other parts of our country and the world, confer glory and hope to newborn liberty. Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud…”
As Mandela continues his speech, it is not his words or conciliatory attitude that strike Jeffrey most, but his remarkably open and charismatic personality. He can think of no other person in the world who could possibly bring his country together than him.
Note: Portions of this blog post are excerpted from my upcoming book, The Art of an Improbable Life.
©Becky Green Aaronson 2012