On a balmy April day in 1994, I drove to Columbus, Ohio, with a group of fellow South African expatriates and students from Oberlin College to vote in the first free South African elections. Columbus had a designated polling station, and the election was open to all expatriates and citizens, regardless of race or creed.
We didn't know each other very well, and the diversity of our group was a microcosm of South African society: another white, a Zulu, a Xhosa, and a Tswana. Most of us had already met, but the election drew us together for the first time.
We had several pressing questions: Would the transition of governments be peaceful? Would the elections go smoothly? United Nations monitors in South Africa were auditing the elections and safeguarding passage to the polling stations for rural Africans new to the concept of voting.
But deep inside, I wondered: Would this really work?
For us, the voting process was clear and easy. The ballot had color photos and pictures for illiterate voters. There were 19 parties, ranging from the SOCCER Party to the African National Congress (which had a color portrait of Nelson Mandela). As improbable as some of the parties were, they reflected a fresh optimism that brought a smile to my face.
Only 20 years of age, I found it difficult to fathom the historic relevance of my five minutes in the voting booth. It was not the specific party that concerned me, but rather being a part of the process. We felt exhilarated because, in politics and life, actions speak louder than words. In any other situation, our divergent political views could have made us antagonists, but we were joined in the most important vote of our lives. Together, we were helping to make a difference, helping to create a lasting system of fair elections.
That day, we left Columbus as equals.