April 14 was an historic day in South Africa because it marked the nation's third democratically held elections. Most around the world can still recall April 27, 1994, the unforgettable day when millions of black South Africans went to the polls for the very first time.
Ten years later, this same sense of election zeal exists among South Africans of every race, class and creed, despite the challenges that still confront this nation. On Election Day 2004, I witnessed South Africans expressing great hope for their future as they went en masse to vote.
My first experience as an international election observer was shared with two other Global Ministries missionaries, William and Veronica Kyle. We left our homes at 6 a.m. to be in place at Johannesburg's Rosebank polling station by 7 a.m. Our role was simply to observe that the process was "free and fair." No one was to be coerced or influenced, and only those officially registered were allowed to vote.
In South Africa, a paper ballot is used to literally draw an "x" next to one's political party of choice. They call it "making your mark." After more than 20 million voters "made their mark"—not only on paper, but also on history—another mark was made with black indelible ink on their left thumbs to prove that they had voted and to prevent them from voting twice. For several weeks, many South Africans proudly displayed their ink-stained thumbs.
At the five polling stations I visited, each had long lines of people waiting to cast ballots. Those who were elderly, ill or standing with infants were allowed to come to the front; others patiently awaited their turns. There was a sense of calm and camaraderie at each station. While many international observers felt no need to monitor the elections, others believe it is a good way to ensure that the process remains honest in industrially developed nations. In fact, monitoring may be a practice worth considering for future U.S. elections.
Long queues continued until the polls closed at 9 p.m. But now, the official work of counting individual ballots would begin. All staff, political party agents and observers who are in a polling station at the beginning of the count must stay until it ends, a sign that every effort is made to keep the process of voting and counting highly transparent.
Ballot tabulations included several recounts, and even though some mistakes were inevitable since the staff had been at work since 5 a.m., the count took place in the middle of an open room under the watchful gaze of two election observers and four representatives of political parties. We all had one goal in common—to ensure a free and fair election.
At 3 a.m. the next morning, after six hours of counting, a satisfactory tabulation was recorded in keeping with electoral laws. We all embraced and wished one another well as we stumbled to the parking lot to make our way home after an absolutely amazing, exhausting day.
Three days later, the nation's ballots were received and audited by the Independent Electoral Commission, and on April 17, it announced that a free and fair election had been observed. The African National Congress, led by President Thabo Mbeki, received more than two thirds of the popular vote.
I felt blessed to have played a small role in the ongoing miracle of South Africa's unfolding democracy. As I stood in that dark parking lot, it was clear that I was not standing in that place alone, but I was standing on the shoulders of countless South Africans who had been detained, imprisoned, tortured, banned, banished, forced into exile, or who simply disappeared during decades of anti-apartheid resistance.
I was standing with millions of justice-seeking people who vigorously mounted international campaigns of solidarity and divestiture to "free South Africa." Had it not been for the witness of these courageous South Africans and their supporters, not to mention the church, I surely would not have been praising the Lord in this empty Johannesburg parking lot in the wee hours of the morning.
God is still speaking—not only to South Africa, but to the entire world. God is giving us a glimpse of what a "new creation" might look like—a world where old, oppressive structures are transformed into new, liberating ones to embrace the needs of all God's people.
The Rev. Adora Iris Lee is a Global Ministries missionary in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she works as an HIV/AIDS advisor.