Front seat of history: I drove Madiba to freedom

Ideas

Front seat of history: I drove Madiba to freedom

Mzunani Roseberry Sonto and others recall the day they voted, and reflect on what has happened to SA since

Journalist
Mzunani Roseberry Sonto drove Nelson Mandela from prison.
DRIVING EVENTS Mzunani Roseberry Sonto drove Nelson Mandela from prison.
Image: Supplied

Mzunani Roseberry Sonto slept like a child on Freedom’s Eve, waking up regularly in anticipation of what the morning would bring. Sleep finally gave way to the euphoria of placing his cross on a ballot paper for the first time.

Just four years before, he had been behind the wheel of the silver Toyota Cressida that transported Nelson Mandela from Victor Verster prison the day he was released.

“I had that feeling where you wake up in the middle of the night, see it’s not time, and then go back to sleep. It was our first time, it enveloped that joy within you, that for the first time I’m choosing something for myself, by myself,” Sonto said.

Driving Mandela from prison was “an experience of my lifetime”.

“I realised that here I am having on my shoulders a cadre of national importance. I knew from that moment my name would be in history books,” he said.

Freedom was a foreign concept for the former child farm labourer who later moved to the city only to face the apartheid police and curfews.

This was top of mind of many black voters in 1994.

Mzunani Roseberry Sonto.
RISING TO THE OCCASION Mzunani Roseberry Sonto.
Image: National Home Builders Registration Council

“Everyone wanted to experience putting an X on the ballot paper. We all understood exactly what the moment was about, having gone through a period of forcibly having your human rights denied, the atmosphere was telling that something new was on the horizon. The winding and snaking queues were the epitome of the joy within the people, it was written on the faces of black, coloured and Indian people,” Sonto said.

For musician and composer Caiphus Semenya, the excitement was tempered by his experience and exposure to the rest of the world. Semenya spent 27 years in exile after traveling to New York as a cast member of the musical Sponono. While pursuing his dream and enjoying freedom in foreign lands, Semenya and his wife Letta Mbulu still longed for freedom back home. The couple toured the US with Miriam Makeba, who had been declared persona non grata by the apartheid regime. The Semenyas were guilty by association and were unable to return to SA.

“When I came back in 1990 I had seen what other people go through, I knew exactly what it’s supposed to be. Unfortunately I had to wait 27 years before I could come back home and vote. In my mind I knew that was only the beginning, it’s not like that event would answer all the questions, and freedom is not only about voting; because of my experience I knew that there was still a lot that had to be done,” Semenya said.

Today Alex is a cesspool of poverty. It was no paradise growing up, but I never expected to come back and find this cesspool.
Caiphus Semenya

Coming back home was bittersweet for Semenya when he saw how places like Alexandra, where he grew up, had deteriorated. Now 80, Semenya was 53 when he cast his vote for the first time.

Speaking from his Sandton home, the soft-spoken musician and his wife voted at the Rivonia Library.

“On that day, it was the first time that I was eligible to vote. I was ecstatic; I was relieved that finally, that moment has come. I’ve always been a person who doesn’t like standing in queues; I did that for many years as a youngster. So on that day I heard they were closing at 7pm, and so we only went to vote at 6.30pm,” Semenya said.

That moment meant he could walk freely in the street without being harassed by a younger white police officer. Voting wasn’t a quick fix to the extreme poverty across the country. Growing up in Alexandra, north of Johannesburg, Semenya said while it was no paradise, the township was not what it is today.

“Today Alex is a cesspool of poverty. It was no paradise growing up, but I never expected to come back and find this cesspool … Freedom is access to all kinds of things like water, sanitation, electricity, a decent home, a well-paying job and education. Nothing happens overnight, but I believe we are on the right track, but it’s still a long road we’ll have to walk,” Semenya said.

On the other side of Johannesburg that day in 1994, a then 20-year-old Basetsana Kumalo and her family were getting ready to vote in Soweto. Five months later she won Miss SA and met Nelson Mandela.

It was an “emotional” Wednesday morning for Kumalo as she got on the back of her father’s bakkie and drove to the voting station, where they waited in line to vote.

“We understood the tide had turned, there was a tangible sense of optimism. When I folded my ballot paper, I did it slowly so that I could take in the moment. I cried as I did it. I slowly put it in the box and made a wish in my heart. I silently wished that with that ballot paper we would see a new era for our country,” Kumalo said.  

Almost three decades later and Kumalo is still filled with hope despite the inequality and poverty facing many South Africans. For her, the difference now is that people have a voice.

“Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus the inequality in our country. The reality of the snaking queues of excited people waiting to vote in 1994 juxtaposed with the queues of people waiting for grants or food parcels now, is so painful. There is a sense of desperation and despair. I see this as another new dawn – through this crisis we’re going to write a new chapter,” Kumalo said.