Few events in recent history have captured the world’s imagination as
South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. Over the course of three
days in late April, nearly twenty million people voted, most for the first
time in their lives. In cities and in small villages, lines a mile long snaked
to polling stations as people waited patiently to cast their votes and begin
creating a democracy at Africa’s southern tip. On a bright day in Pretoria
a few weeks later, the newly elected president, Nelson Mandela, spoke to
millions of South Africans and to the world. “We are moved by a sense of
joy and exhilaration when the grass turns green and the flowers bloom,”
he began, recalling the country’s earlier international pariah status and the
deep trauma its people experienced:
That spiritual and physical oneness we all share with this common
homeland explains the depth of the pain we all carried in our hearts as
we saw our country tear itself apart in a terrible conflict, and as we saw
it spurned, outlawed and isolated by the peoples of the world, precisely
because it has become the universal base of the pernicious ideology
and practice of racism and racial oppression. We, the people of South
Africa, feel fulfilled that humanity has taken us back into its bosom,
that we, who were outlaws not so long ago, have today been given the
rare privilege to be host to the nations of the world on our own soil. . . .
We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all
South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, with-
out any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human
dignity— a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world. . . . Let
A mere five years earlier, the country had teetered on the edge of political
collapse: internationally isolated, its economy in shambles, Nelson Mandela
languishing in prison, many urban townships occupied by the military amid
extraordinary violence with thousands dead and more than thirty thousand
arrested for political offenses, and the entire country under a state of emer-
gency. Many believed that South Africa was inexorably heading toward
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