On April 27, 1994, millions queued in line for their first opportunity to vote. One man came in a wheelbarrow, having no legs to bring him to the polls. He had waited his whole life for this moment and would not be denied the right because of a disability. And with his vote -- a simple X because he had been denied the opportunity to learn to read and write -- he helped end apartheid and made history, ushering in freedom for South Africa with Nelson Mandela as its leader.
I was married to one of the poll watchers. Barron watched history unfold first-hand, as an election observer and as an advisor to the new government. Twenty years ago, he shared his daily experiences with me and yesterday, we shared tears as the world lost one of its greatest.
As a college student, I enrolled in a course on Sub-Saharan politics in 1972 and became captivated by what I learned about the situation in South Africa and the person of Nelson Mandela, who was in prison at that time. In 1987, I traveled to Johannesburg and vividly remember the night when I snuck into Soweto covered by blankets in a car amidst the sounds of nearby gunfire to attend a party at our black friends' home.
No one could have told me then that this country, which everyone predicted would blow up in violence, would have a bloodless revolution. There's only one reason for that: Nelson Mandela.
Back on that election day in 1994, the first day of the election period was for seniors and people with disabilities. Barron said that when he got to his assigned polling place at 6:30 AM the lines were already half a mile long -- all old people or those missing limbs, blind or bent double with scoliosis, and all waiting with the stoicism of folks who had needed to stand in line for everything, all their life.
"Today we take our country back," the man in the wheelbarrow had said. "Even if they cut my arms off, I would vote with my teeth."
Months ago when Mandela became ill, I prepared for his passing. But my reaction yesterday upon hearing the news of his death surprised me. I found myself overwhelmed with emotion at the magnanimity of the person and the thought that the world had lost this spirit. For a white Southerner who had been through the civil rights process and desegregation in this country, Mandela represented such hope for unity.
Today, though the world mourns the loss of this great man, it also celebrates what his legacy has brought not only to South Africans, but to other Africans and to people of all races who believe in his message of freedom and equality.