A piece of History

2014-01-10 00:00

FROM the beginning of 1993 to the middle of 1995, I worked for an organisation that is now called the Diakonia Council of Churches as a peace worker or violence monitor. My job title was violence monitor, but as the months went by, and especially during 1994, I often found myself acting as a mediator in localised conflicts.

I worked in some of the most violent areas in KZN, including the townships north and south of Durban, such as KwaMashu, Mlazi and Inanda. This little history represents my memories of what we did in Ndwedwe, which is a huge rural area inland of Verulam, north of Durban.

At about 4 am on April 27, 1994, I attended a briefing at Diakonia. The Durban co-ordinator of the Network of Independence Monitors, which DCC was affiliated to, informed us that she had received an urgent phone call from an IEC facilitator to say that the IEC officials had refused to enter Ndwedwe because they feared for their safety. This was not surprising. Seven IEC officials, locals from Ndwedwe, had been tortured and killed in Ndwedwe two or three weeks previously, and while the newly named Inkatha Freedom Party had officially joined the election process, they had done so only a week or so before.

I had been doing work in the area for about a year, and I was known to some of the local leaders, both ANC and IFP. I was more or less accepted as independent by these leaders. The IEC facilitator had asked the Durban co-ordinator for help, and she asked me to do what I could in the circumstances.

We set off in two vehicles, us locals driving, each accompanied by a volunteer from Sweden. We had been working with these volunteers for a bit longer than a month — they were part of the huge international effort at the time to observe and legitimise the transition to democracy. All four of us knew each other well enough to rely on one another in tight situations, and our particular assignment that morning was as tight as they come: Ndwedwe was a large rural area; if the election process got off to a bad start there, or stalled, the implications were serious.

As it happened, the work that I and others had been doing in that area, often at great risk, paid off on April 27 and in the three days that followed. The local Zulu police commander recognised me and immediately accepted our role as “acting” IEC officials. Our two cars split up and we visited as many of the schools and halls that were being used as polling stations as we could. We formally opened any polling stations that were awaiting IEC officials, and we assured those already open that they had done the right thing and should continue polling. People who did not recognise us had heard of us, and in many places we found that school principals and others put in charge of polling stations were only too glad to accept anyone as some sort of official representative, and we were certainly good enough for them!

We listened to complaints and duly recorded the more serious ones we heard, such as under-age voting, improper procedures that allowed people to vote multiple times, intimidation at polling stations, people carrying weapons near the polling stations, political parties canvassing at polling stations and more. From time to time during the voting days, we would radio in details to the Durban co-ordinator and sometimes a couple of helicopters would land close by and higher-ranking IEC officials would investigate the allegations.

On the second or third day of voting, we passed by a voting station quite early in the morning. Everything was fine, and when we left some minutes later, we turned right to head up a long hill that stretched for a kilometre or more. As I turned the car, I noticed an old man —  certainly in his eighties — trudging up the hill. I remember well that I passed him, glancing guiltily in my rear-view mirror, telling myself that I was ethically bound not to assist one side or the other. My Swedish companion made no comment at all. Nor did she complain when I braked harshly and then reversed back to the old man and invited him into the car. The old man himself seemed to divine the struggle I was having with my conscience for he said, as soon as the road levelled out, “Thank you very much, you can let me out here”. We never spoke about the incident, but her smiles as we drove off said clearly that if I had made a mistake, it was in the name of common humanity.

A very tense situation developed during the afternoon of the final day of national voting. My companion and I were called by the presiding officer at one of the main voting stations in Ndwedwe. He informed a group of us at about 4 pm that he intended to close the voting stations because there were too many irregularities occurring, and he could not guarantee the safety of his workers or the hundreds of people who still wanted to cast their vote.

Voting was supposed to close at 7 pm on that day, and the presiding officer was seriously concerned that he could not process the growing crowd of people waiting to vote before 7 pm, and he was afraid of what might happen after dark fell, between 5 pm and 6 pm at that time of the year.

When asked for my opinion, I agreed that the presiding officer should close the polling station if he though that was for the best, but I strongly advised him to ask for police and army reinforcements before he announced that he was closing the station. We also radioed in how tense and potentially dangerous the situation had become. Someone must have listened to our pleas, because police and army units did arrive, and then an hour or so later it was announced that voting would continue for one extra day in KZN.

History will only remember the big names of that time, and that is fair enough, because those big names are the very people who dedicated their whole lives to bringing about constitutional democracy in South Africa. At the same time, history was made by hundreds, if not thousands, of ordinary people who did their best in very difficult situations during those days, like myself and those who worked with me, and the presiding officer I have mentioned, along with so many others.

For my part, though, I would like to dedicate this little piece of history to the seven IEC volunteers who gave their lives, albeit unwittingly, perhaps. I often wonder if they knew what might await them as they approached the school where they met their end, and whether they died well, or badly, whatever that means. It was an atrocity among many committed by all sides during the terrible years leading up to April 1994, and while we might learn to forgive, we should never forget, because any blood that waters the tree of democracy has to be precious, no matter who spills it.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of those first elections and acknowledge that the beloved father of our new nation may not be with us for much longer*, I hope that we will use the time to reflect on all that was sacrificed to bring about our precious democracy.

*Nelson Mandela died on December 5, after this article had been submitted for the competition.

• The True Stories winners have been announced and we are now publishing the remainder of the semi-finalists’ tales.

Francis Armitage came to South Africa in 1986 as a church worker. He learnt Zulu in Elandskop and has taught mathematics at Alexandra High School since 1999. He says the passing of Madiba is a turning point but the example of Madiba’s life will move SA in good directions

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