In honor of Black History Month, we are celebrating the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). Mandela is recognized as the key figure in the movement for change in South Africa. As the segregation and discrimination of apartheid came to an end in the 1990s, the legal system began to crumble under the weight of human rights challenges. Mandela was elected as the nation’s first black president in 1994.
The fight to bring democracy and stability to South Africa was a movement that was a call heard all around the world. People from many countries showed their support for developing democracy by volunteering to travel to South Africa to work on the election.
Henrietta Williams, a Switzer Library patron, spent three weeks in the country in 1994 as an elections monitor and voter education worker. She speaks of the voices for change, as well as the dangers associated with the country’s first all-race election.
“The Nelson Mandela movement for change was a multicultural, multiracial movement for change which was showed tremendous support, but it was also very dangerous, because the party in power, the National Party, encouraged violence to discourage people from voting.”
Williams spoke about how she risked her life for social change. She narrowly missed a car bomb explosion that killed several people the day she was supposed to pick up her official worker’s badge.
But she also spoke of the support that farmers and the Indian community showed for the movement.
The election committee set up practice voting booths and used sample ballots so that people would be comfortable voting during the actual election. They made sure that the ballots were visual, because literacy was low, and they wanted everyone to have a say with their vote.
On the day of the election people walked for many miles and waited in long lines to make sure their voices were heard. The anti-apartheid movement and the election was so important to the people of South Africa that voters went to great lengths to cast their ballots.
“There was one elderly woman who was over 100 years old. She was disabled and didn’t have legs to walk to the precinct, so she had her family push her in a wheelbarrow,” Williams said. “The importance of her vote mattered so much to her. She voted and then passed away right after they walked out.”
Throughout her time in South Africa, Williams collected several mementos from the election, including photographs of local farmers preparing their workers to vote, newspaper clippings of the election, sample ballots, and wraps and scarves with Mandela’s face created by the African National Congress, Mandela’s multiracial party. These items will be on display at Switzer Library in downtown Marietta through early March.