Somewhere in my house, there’s a little, creased yellow Post-It note with words quickly scrawled on it in my handwriting. From 1994. It doesn’t really have a place; it doesn’t live in a desk drawer or file cabinet. Part of the reason is my sloppy housekeeping. Most of the reason is that every time I find it, I have to sit down and remember all over again one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen on the news. Things I wrote down on the first little scrap I could get to, so I’d never forget.
On April 27, 1994, South Africa held the first multi-racial election in its history. Nelson Mandela had been incarcerated for as long – 21 years – as it has now been since that election day. And he was elected to head a new coalition government in the country that jailed him, a coalition that included the party of the apartheid government that locked him up. That alone is incredible. That’s the country my grandmother grew up in, that and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).
But it’s not what I scribbled. It was the man in the wheelbarrow. See, people who never had the right to vote lined up in the sun and in the rain, hours before polls opened. Babies on mothers’ backs, children on fathers’ backs. Old people were carried by strong young men. On my yellow Post-It, I scrawled the story of a very old man brought in a broken wheelbarrow – miles on dirt roads, in the sun.
He couldn’t read or write. He had to be helped. When he was done and his finger was inked to mark that vote, he smiled and nodded to his family. And walking out of the building, he collapsed and died. The last act of his life was that vote. On the day South Africa now calls Freedom Day.
I’m a saver of little, creased yellow Post-Its, upon which the greatest things I’ve ever seen are scrawled. And it still breaks me when I meet an American who scorns voting, thinks its bullshit. I tell them about my little, creased yellow Post-It. And people who fought for what they take for granted.