Day he said, ‘Mr President, the country is free’
When Nelson Mandela arrived at Ohlange High School in Inanda to cast his first vote in 1994, he asked the then-principal Vusumuzi Sangweni for a brief tour of the school found-ed by his “hero”, John Dube, the first president of the ANC.
It was a “nightmare day” that Sangweni, who was the electoral officer responsible for the voting station at the historic school, will never forget.
When the IEC informed him that the school had been selected as a voting station, Sangweni thought it would be a walk in the park.
But a few days before the election, he became “suspicious” when police came to inspect the school and he noticed a Sky News helicopter.
“The next morning, the police and IEC asked if the school was ready,” said Sangweni.
In the afternoon things went “over my head” when police and the IEC told him Mandela would be voting there.
Speaking in his Umlazi home, in his “quiet room”, Sangweni said he had called an urgent meeting.
“I asked for additional police and security. I was under pressure, and it became a nightmare to organise.”
Sangweni’s “quiet room” is filled with pictures of Mandela, his books and boxing memorabilia. Like Mandela, Sangweni is a boxing fanatic.
Thinking back to that day in 1994, Sangweni said the news that Mandela would be voting at the school spread like wildfire, and people came in their thousands to see Mandela cast his first vote. “When he arrived, I couldn’t even receive him, because I was busy making sure things ran smoothly at the voting station.”
Mandela, flanked by Jacob Zuma, Correctional Services Minister Sibusiso Ndebele and Dube’s daughter, Aunt Lulu, the daughter of Dube, as well as bodyguards, asked Sangweni for a tour.
Unlike Zuma and Ndebele, who were jubilant, Mandela appeared emotional and nervous before voting, Sangweni recalls.
“I greeted him and he asked if the voting station was ready. He asked if everything was in order.”
Sangweni froze and said: “Yes.”
Mandela shook his hand and told him: “You are lucky to be the principal of this school.”
Sangweni understood Mandela was referring to the work done by the school’s founder, who was nicknamed Mafukuzela (Hard worker).
Sangweni then led Mandela into the polling station.
“Photographers were not allowed inside, for security purposes, but I had never seen so many angry journalists in my life. I had to carry the ballot box outside, because they wanted the picture of Mandela voting.
“His facial expression before he voted suddenly changed. You could see what the vote meant to him.”
After voting, Mandela and his entourage visited Dube’s grave, near the school. There, Mandela knelt down, laid flowers and said: “Mr President, the country is free.”