Three things happened that year, in my life. I’ve been thinking of those three things a lot today, remembering that day 21 years ago when we watched the news at school and saw the snaking multicoloured lines of people casting the first free ballot ever. I knew what that meant, then. I was only ten, but I knew what it meant.
The year began with Dada’s death. His place in my life had been a stern tall shadow in the rarefied altitude of their Westcliff house. He and my maternal grandmother had been the reason for the six hours in a car at almost every Easter and Christmas of the first ten years of my life. I knew him only as old, angular, crisp and more than a little distant. He is the only grandfather I have ever known, and so the shape he took is the archetype for “grandfather” in my psyche.
I have since learnt many antithetical things about him – how his principles denied him attendance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and left him with only the Springbok badge, that he read Law at Oxford but never practised it here, how my grandmother spurned his first advances and responded to his subsequent courting only because she then lacked an eye, and how he eventually became yet another architect of our continent’s modern slave trade to the gold mines, earning himself a gold watch, a mansion on the ridge and other trinkets because of it.
His life is one of many reasons why my mother became the person she is, as a reaction against everything that he stood for, and his death signalled the end of his era. It is appropriate, in hindsight, that he passed away at the beginning of 1994, in the final year of Apartheid.
In between the event of his death and the third one of that year is this day, with all of its consequences. I had barely seen my father for months leading up to it. He was often high above the country, flying between Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town and elsewhere, meeting with the great and the aspirant, the good and the evil. He has only told me some of those stories since then, in bits and pieces. I knew the significance of the 27th of April, though. I had sat with him four and a bit years before that day, watching a man we had only ever spoken about walking out of prison to rapturous applause. I had heard all the fear and the hope from the adults at our school in the Natal Midlands. Mostly fear.
As a nine-almost-ten-year-old, looking at the headlines on that morning’s edition of the Natal Witness, I am totally aware of what the day signifies. I remember that. I remember getting into arguments with the other boys, the rich capitalists’ kids, about the politics of it all. I remember wondering who would win the election, but knowing that things would be different. Dad is on the provincial lists, so I’m hoping he’ll get elected. In the end, he does. He and Mum attend the inauguration at the Union Buildings. The country changes.
Which ushers in the third thing in that year. Six months into our new democracy, the Rainbow Nation is in full swing. IFP has taken full control of the new KwaZulu-Natal, and my parents are at the AGM in Ulundi, along with my brother and I. I am now a little over ten years old. Dad is a new member of the Provincial Legislature, and all the fears of the Things are looking up for the family. But the weekend ends in tragedy, and my whole life spins out of control. My brother’s death alters me permanently. It takes me many years to find any sort of peace about it. It is, in many ways, what makes me who I am today.
So while this day is the birth of our freedom, inkululeko yethu, it is also tinged with other feelings for me. I cannot witness the majority of our nation, its twenty-first, without thinking of those other memories.