Home News The fatal prelude to South Africa’s first free elections

The fatal prelude to South Africa’s first free elections


Thirty years ago, black South Africans voted for the first time, celebrating the birth of democracy in their country. As I write this, South Africa is bathed in the warm winter sun, and the people of South Africa are free.

April 27, 1994, was a day that changed the fate of everyone in the country. I was there, too. But I only remember that day vaguely.

Yet I remember clearly that victory was won on that day at the cost of human lives. The war was in reality a proxy war instigated by the apartheid state, pitting ethnic groups against each other. Those who wanted this bloodshed to derail democratic negotiations called it black-on-black violence.

There was a four-year gap between Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the first real elections, during which time the apartheid government slowly came to terms with the political leaders it had long sought to suppress. 14,000 people Tragic death.

Many South Africans may choose to forget. Young people may simply not know. But here’s what I saw in the months leading up to the vote.

Entire neighborhoods fell silent as people fled their homes, and unidentified bodies lay scattered on the empty streets for hours until morgue trucks took them away and displayed them on the dirt road as a warning to everyone.

Nine days before the election, the country was ablaze with fighting. It was a final sprint between warring factions. The Inkatha Freedom Party, a powerful Zulu political and cultural movement, was preparing to boycott the election, saying the new deal gave too little power to regions like KwaZulu, which it had long ruled. The bodies were piling up.

On April 18, 1994, I found myself on Kumalo Street in Tokoza, a black township east of Johannesburg.

To my left lay Ken Osterbrook, badly wounded, and to my right lay Greg Marinovich, clutching his chest and struggling. My friends and fellow photographers, dead and wounded, had dedicated their lives to documenting the violence and death throes of apartheid.

Between 1990 and 1994, nearly 700 people died in Tokoza, hundreds of them on that street. This was just one of many deaths. Today, a memorial on Kumalo Street bears the names of those who died, including Ken’s.

I visited the monument in late 2016 when it was used as a shelter for homeless people who slept next to its inscribed marble walls. It has since been restored by former vigilantes and residents, mostly supporters of Mandela’s African National Congress, who defended their community against attacks by supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Macdonald Mabizela, 48, who was a teenage fighter then and is now a caretaker, explained how they removed strays, cleaned the monument and rebuilt parts of the wall that had collapsed when someone drove a car into it.

That evening, Nelson Mandela addressed the nation, calling for calm and an end to the bloodshed – an initiative of his predecessor as president. Soon after, the Inkatha Freedom Party announced that it would contest the election. The ballot paper did not have a place for the party. The ballot paper was quickly labeled. It was a stark reminder of how close South Africa came to civil war.

South Africans voted, and it was a quiet day, and that’s all I remember. I documented it, and what should have been a life-changing experience was lost on me. I had just buried a friend, and another was recovering from three gunshot wounds. I voted in Katlehong, a six-minute drive from where Ken was killed, mailed the film back to the AP office, and sat with Greg. The two days of voting passed quickly, and I was barely there.

This week, South Africa will once again hold elections, the most unpredictable national election in its history since 1994. At times like this, we should remember history and pay tribute to those who paid the price with their lives as politicians negotiated their bid for power and democracy.

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