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“The right to vote in my own country at last”

27.04.2015 - Article

The first free elections in South Africa in 1994 were an important step towards overcoming racial segregation. Our colleague Vera Paulin was posted in South Africa at the time.

People queueing patiently outside polling stations across South Africa
People queueing patiently outside polling stations across South Africa© dpa/picture-alliance

The first free elections in South Africa in April 1994 were an important step towards overcoming racial segregation. Our colleague Vera Paulin was posted in South Africa at the time and recalls what happened for our series “In the line of duty”.

“These endless queues of voters standing there quite patiently and waiting to finally cast their ballot.” Images from Pretoria that are still very much fresh in Vera Paulin’s memory.

The former employee of the German Embassy witnessed the elections back then in her capacity as an election observer. Today, over 20 years later, she says: “Despite fears that the situation in the country could spill over into violence, the atmosphere was quite convivial. We had the feeling that history was being made!”

Vera Paulin (currently at the German Embassy in Ouagadougou)
Vera Paulin (currently at the German Embassy in Ouagadougou)© AA/Paulin

Years of change from 1990

Born in South Africa herself, Vera Paulin applied for the Foreign Service and training as a multilingual secretary after leaving school in Germany. In the course of her career, she has spent over half of her life in Africa, experiencing the exciting years of change in South Africa from 1990 to 1995.

In February 1990, Nelson Mandela, a founding member of the African National Congress (ANC), was released from imprisonment. The ANC had fought against apartheid for decades, including with an armed wing from 1961.

Following his release from prison, Mandela became an increasingly important political figure, Vera Paulin recalls, as well as an ever more outspoken advocate of peaceful coexistence: “He was really quite impressive.” After years of bloody unrest, change was in the air:

You could feel the tension on both sides quite keenly. Terrible things happened; people were killed. As 1994 approached, the year in which the elections were to be held, I also felt the hope that the people had. Despite all the setbacks.
The team from the German Embassy en route to observe the elections
The team from the German Embassy en route to observe the elections© AA/Paulin

South Africa on the path to democracy

After the then President F.W. de Klerk initiated reforms and started to take steps to abolish the apartheid laws from 1990 onwards, an interim constitution was adopted in 1993, which guaranteed the right to vote for all South Africans. In the spring of the following year, the constitution finally entered into force on 27 April 1994, an event still celebrated on Freedom Day, which is a public holiday. Elections were held from 26 to 29 April.

Vera Paulin volunteered to be an election observer:

A Note Verbale arrived from the South African Foreign Ministry, which said that those who wanted to serve as election observers should get in touch. I headed to the polls along with some Embassy colleagues. At the briefing, we were kitted out with ID, armbands and caps before calling at several polling stations.

We encountered lots of elderly people there, Paulin recalls. “‘I thought I would never live to see the day’, they said.” They went to cast their votes with such great dignity, and the crowd was so large that the polls were even kept open for a little while longer.” While there was quite a bit of concern about whether the election would proceed peacefully, there was also “this amazing atmosphere. This hope! I’m getting goose pimples all over again.”

Nelson Mandela (right) at his inauguration on 10 May 1994
Nelson Mandela (right) at his inauguration on 10 May 1994© dpa/picture-alliance

Nelson Mandela elected new President

“As expected, the ANC won, and Mandela became South Africa’s first black President”, says Vera Paulin. “It was a truly historic moment, and I was there.” She still has the programme for the German Foreign Minister’s attendance of the celebrations on the occasion of Mandela’s inauguration, as well as other documents relating to the elections from the time as special mementos.

The moment South Africa had been waiting for finally arrived on 10 May 1994 as Pretoria got ready for the inauguration of the new President Nelson Mandela and his Vice President Thabo Mbeki. South Africa stood eagerly on the threshold of change. Despite the hopeful atmosphere, people were afraid that violence might break out. Security precautions in the city were extensive:

It was certainly a day of great joy. I remember one thing especially clearly about my journey to the Embassy on 10 May. We had been given permission to drive across Church Street, which is a major main street in Pretoria. It was blocked by NATO barbed wire to the right and left.
View from the Union Buildings on 10 May 1994
View from the Union Buildings on 10 May 1994© AA/Paulin

Later that day, Paulin, accompanied by other colleagues from the German Embassy, made her way on foot to the Union Buildings, where a large number of bystanders had gathered. “We wanted to see the guests as they were leaving; our then Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, was also there, along with many other heads of state and government.”

Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black President, said during his first term that he did not intend to stand for a second, and so he announced his resignation from office in 1999. He remains a symbolic figure for the end of apartheid in his home country, even after his death on 5 December 2013:

I think he taught us many things – especially forgiveness. The fact that he taught us this, and also that we can live together, despite all our differences, impressed me greatly.

Read more:

More on German-South African relations

Website of the German Missions in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland: www.southafrica.diplo.de

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