Nelson Mandela has been much in the news of late. His failing health is of concern not only to South Africans; ‘Madiba’ is highly respected worldwide. Seeing these images on TV and hearing the latest news reminded me of my visits to South Africa and other countries over the years. But there’s one visit – I was in transit actually – that I’ll never forget.
In April 1994, I had been asked by the Directors General of IRRI in the Philippines and WARDA (now the Africa Rice Center) in the Ivory Coast to undertake a review of a very important rice breeding network called INGER – the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice. As I was also developing a major rice biodiversity project to be funded by the Swiss, I decided to take the opportunity of this trip to Africa, and visit possible collaborators in Zambia and Kenya. Looking at the various flight options – none very easy at that time, but considerably better today – I chose a flight with Singapore Airlines into Johannesburg, and on to Lusaka with South African Airways (SAA).
On board my SQ 747-400 at Changi, I was slightly perplexed that there were so few passengers on board. I was seated on the upper deck in Business Class – and the only passenger. I asked the purser who confirmed that there were only about 20 passengers in total on board. And he went on to explain that the following day when we landed in Johannesburg – 27 April – was the first post-apartheid election, which Nelson Mandela and the Africa National Council (ANC) were expected to win. Because of several bombing incidents around South Africa leading up to the election there had been a drop in passenger traffic on SQ. Election on the day of my arrival? Well that one had gone completely over my head when I was planning the trip.
We landed in Jo’burg in the early morning, and I made my way to the SAA lounge. I prepared myself a little breakfast – some juice, a Danish, perhaps, nothing heavy – and settled down to watch news of the election on the TV. My flight to Lusaka was scheduled around 11 am if I remember correctly, and this was around 0730 or so. Of course the highlight was watching Nelson Mandela cast his vote, and afterwards he appeared on the steps of the polling station to make a statement.
BOOM! An enormous explosion, and the whole airport terminal shook. I realized at once that a bomb had gone off – and right above my head. It took several minutes for anyone to advise us what had happened and what to do. We were told to stay in the safety of the Business Lounge until further notice. At which point, I got a ‘call of nature’ and had to find a rest-room, and quick. I’d been there for only a couple of minutes, when I heard someone shouting in the lounge ‘Everyone outside, now!’ Well, I was in a pretty pickle, I can tell you. Someone came into the rest-room to check if anyone was there, and I was told to get out as quick as possible. We were led through the departure hall – which was pretty much destroyed – and on to the grass outside. Fortunately it was an early autumn morning, bright and sunny, but a little chilly at the beginning. It seems that there had been an Afrikaner backlash, and a car bomb had been placed outside the departure hall.
Here’s what was written in a US Department of State dispatch: There were a number of serious incidents of domestic political violence in the run-up to South Africa’s first multiracial election in April 1994. There was also one act of international terrorism on 27 April when members of the right-wing Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) detonated a car bomb at the Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg. The bomb injured 16, including two Russian diplomats and a pilot for Swiss Air.
The airport didn’t close, and the domestic terminal kept operating more or less normally; international arrivals were diverted there. After a couple of hours we were taken back inside, and my SAA flight to Lusaka was delayed by only about 30 minutes.
But that is my memory of the election that Nelson Mandela won in 1994. It’s hard to believe that he’s been out of the political limelight already for more than a decade.