A hero’s smile: Twenty years on, a photograph of Nelson Mandela on the verge of taking power is a reminder of how he changed a nation
The news photographer Glynn Griffiths returned to his native South Africa in 1994 to cover the lead-up the elections that turned South Africa into a democracy and launched the world-changing presidency of Nelson Mandela. Over three months he travelled the length and breadth of the country, reporting from hard-pressed, impoverished townships, whose inhabitants had been given hope by Mandela’s release from captivity on 11 February 1990, as well as from the last redoubts of white-supremacist apartheid rule in the farming communities of the Transvaal.
The culminating moment of the trip for Griffiths was a rally held in a small sports stadium in the Athlone township in Cape Town. “The atmosphere in the stadium was electric,” he recalled. “Orderly, packed, huge anticipation”.
“Tens of thousands of supporters crammed the township stadium – all waiting to see Nelson Mandela at his final election rally in Cape Town. The full-throated ‘wall’ of singing – call, chant and refrain -from the rich African voices rolled across you, squeezing your chest with anticipation. Without warning, the gates opened and in drove Mandela, standing without ceremony in the back of a pick-up truck. His huge smile was wide and open; he raised his fist in the most relaxed of salutes to acknowledge the roaring crowd – his people. It was truly unforgettable.”
Griffiths’s picture captures the easy authority, balanced with humour – with his softly closed fist and spectacular multi-coloured jersey – that became Mandela’s trademark during his seven years as president of free South Africa. But in the early months of 1994, despite the optimism that Griffiths found everywhere he went in South Africa, there remained an unspoken fear of the risk to Mandela’s life. Nearly a year before Chris Hani, a senior figure in Mandela’s African National Congress and head of the South African Communist Party, had been assassinated by a supporter of the extreme right. It was a moment when the country threatened to explode into violence. Mandela, a year before he became president, had addressed the nation and successfully brought calm to the situation.
For Griffiths, his photograph represents “The moment one of the greatest men in history achieved what he had spent his life trying to realise… It was my little bit of being involved in good history. It is wonderful to be part of that.”
It had an extra importance for him because, he says, news photographers ”seldom … become involved with good history. “”There are very few ‘Mandela’ situations in the world. When a news photographer seldom finds himself or herself covering a story which, in the end, is nothing but good.”
That photo is of the one of the great things in politics, it is a great man who did great things, who [had] suffered greatly, but in the end.. smiled. And the country smiles with him. And long may that last.”
Weeks later, on 10 May 1994, a formally suited Mandela gave the inaugural address that set the tone for a presidency that sealed his place as one of the greatest of all political leaders. It was the opening of an heroic period in South African politics.
All still photographs by Glynn Griffiths
Read more here about how Glynn moved from photography to making other types of fine art.