On April 27, 1994, Jim and Jane Benson traveled from polling station to polling station in South Africa. Appointed international observers, they were there to help ensure the first free elections in the country were held in a fair and safe manner.
“It was an unbelievable and amazing experience,” Jane Benson said. “People were lined up all over the place, whites and blacks standing in line together. Before then, it would have never happened, blacks and whites standing next to each other in the same time.”
The Bensons witnessed apartheid crumble, as South Africa moved from whites-only rule to a “rainbow nation” under Nelson Mandela. And as South Africa and the world mourns Mandela’s death, the Bensons reflected on their time being in a country in transition.
In a career spanning several decades, continents and countries, the Bensons worked for the U.S. Foreign Service for more than 30 years, until, in 1991 they were assigned to South Africa, just after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 after spending 27 years in a cell on Robben Island.
“Our daughters wouldn’t let us go there before Mandela was released,” Jane Benson said. “They were very much against apartheid.”
Their daughters had even wanted to protest against the South African Springbok rugby team when they visited New Zealand to play the All Blacks where the family was at the time.
Apartheid, the system instituted by the National Party of South Africa starting in 1948, disenfranchised black Africans and created a society where the minority white population controlled the government and economy. Apartheid, like segregation in the United States, separated races, dividing them in work, education, services, neighborhoods; even to which beaches they could visit and on which benches they could sit.
The system was so strict, the Bensons explained, even their gardener had to have a permission slip to cross the street to talk to a neighbor, since his document only allowed him to work at their house. Black were not allowed to move freely in white areas and their movements were restricted.
“There was a lot of uncertainty during those years,” Jim Benson said. “The whites were scared about what was going to happen and after decades of oppression. No one knew what would happen.”
But because of Mandela’s policy of reconciliation and inclusion of former adversaries in his government, the violence and flight of capital and talent that many believed would happen didn’t.
The Bensons watched the rehearsal of Mandela’s inauguration at the Union Buildings in Pretoria and saw black Africans for the first time preparing for the ceremony, something that would have been unthinkable beforehand, since blacks were banned from being on the grounds of the Union Buildings.
“The euphoria of the people was unbelievable, especially among the blacks,” Jane Benson said.
Before Mandela was elected, Jane Benson said it was not easy being an American in South Africa, especially among whites. The economic sanctions the international community had against South Africa because of apartheid had made it difficult for families to get car parts and she said families had to wait months to get a light bulb.
“The white people there hated Americans because of the sanctions,” Jane Benson said. “I tried to join a group that made pottery there, but I had to stop since they were so against the Americans.”
Economic sanctions, in addition to the internal struggle led by Mandela’s African National Congress, are what many have credited with bringing down the apartheid regime.
The election changed things in South Africa, although not overnight and perhaps not as quickly as some would have liked.
The Bensons said there was an increase in crime, especially burglaries, in their last years there, the houses in the white neighborhood they lived in Pretoria started to build walls around their properties.
The Bensons donned blue hats and arm bands and traveled from polling station to polling station across South Africa on April 27, 1994. Voters lined up for hours in places waiting for their chance to vote.
“There was a lot of training before the election, on how to vote, how to use the ballot,” Jim Benson said. “This was the first time these people had voted and many of them were illiterate.”
Voters had to show identification cards and then their fingers were checked for a spray that would only show in ultraviolet light. Their fingers were then marked and they were handed their ballots.
“Some would hold a ballot and then ask, ‘Where’s Mandela?’” Jim Benson said. “We would show them on the ballot, since it only had his party’s name with a small picture of him on it.”
The election at the time was called fair and open and Mandela won 62 percent of the vote, with F.W. de Klerk, the last apartheid era president, receiving 20 percent of the vote.
Jim Benson said Mandela did not initially have the support of the people, especially the whites, but he gained it through being reasonable and willing to compromise and take measured steps.
“He had the support of the majority of the people. Maybe not the majority of whites, but the majority of all the people,” Jim Benson said.
South Africa continues to have high crime, a large disparity between the rich and poor, high unemployment and HIV-AIDS has reached epidemic proportions. But it is moving past its history of apartheid with the strongest economy in Africa. Mandela was a part of that, bringing South Africa together in what was once a country divided along racial lines. And from 1991 to 1995, the Bensons were able to witness this change.
“They were interesting times,” Jane Benson said. “We didn’t quite realize what we were living through.”
“When Mandela came to power, there was this sense of hope,” Jim Benson said. “The people had this sense of hope and Mandela was their leader.”