Waltzing into a new era

At a premature party, days before the official vote count made Nelson Mandela president in 1994, two women shared their joy in the early hours of the morning.

This photograph was taken at around 1am at the Grand Ballroom in Johannesburg’s Carlton Hotel on 30 April 1994, three days after South Africa’s first democratic elections and two days before the results of the vote officially came out. Not anticipating the delayed count, the ANC started the party days too early. It was only on 2 May in the same venue that Nelson Mandela addressed his supporters and claimed the presidency. 

The Carlton, which goes back to 1906 with “a telephone in every room”, was the finest hotel in the southern hemisphere. It remained the best when it was rebuilt and opened as part of the greater Carlton Centre in 1972 when it was constructed to rival New York’s Rockefeller Center. 

The ballroom hosted not only balls, but also business functions, political meetings and strike negotiations, led by none other than Cyril Ramaphosa. It was the venue for the National Peace Accord and the site of celebrations for the end of the cultural boycott, hosted by Paul Simon and Mandela. International disinvestment and the decline of the city centre along with rising crime eventually led to its closure in 1997.

It was still going strong in 1994, however, and waiting for the party to start. That day, I was exhausted from covering the elections and not particularly enthusiastic about going to what we saw as a non-event.

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It had been a long week. We were divided into teams and everyone was sent out on voting day. It was exhilarating to witness the queues of thousands. At one of the voting stations in the north I was at for a short while, people generously arrived with water for the thirsty. Women with babies could jump the line. Later it was discovered that a few blocks away an impromptu baby hire business had popped up. The days following 27 April became more taxing – the story had to somehow be kept alive until the big announcement. Late on the Saturday night when I was sent off to the Carlton in case a big name pitched up, I was particularly weary.

The room had the feeling of a long wait. It was that dead time particular to elections, after the closing of the polls but before the vote count is finalised. Guests milled around, waiting for people to arrive, waiting for the big wigs, so celebrations could get under way. It was more like a party slowly winding down. The band made a half effort at a sound check and then never returned. People, not many I recognised, drifted in and out and dozed at the tables. 

But I learned a lesson that night, not for the first time. Everything counts, not just high-profile assignments and high-profile people. I came to prefer the “off, off, off Broadway” type of assignments. They suited me better. I worked in the company of many great photographers. It was the crossover time with “elders” still working alongside the likes of the Bang Bang Club. Big names such as Alf Kumalo and Peter Magubane shot lens to lens with young guns such as Ken Oosterbroek, Juda Ngwenya and João Silva. There was enormous photographic talent and courage then. Competition for the bigger international stories was intense, but I preferred the quieter side shows. 

Looking at this image and thinking back to that palpable feeling of satisfaction and hope in that half-empty ballroom, I wonder whether Nelson Mandela’s beaming smile would now be anywhere near what it was in 1994.

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