Towards the end of the day, as the polling was coming to a close, I went to a small polling station in Soweto with a BBC broadcast unit. We had been recording the voices of black, white and coloured South Africans as they queued up to vote. It was one of those rare days in a journalist's life when the old cliche about being a witness to history rang true. By the end of the day we had heard so many stories of individual strength that it was hard to imagine anything more powerful being uttered. And then, in the smoky dusk of the South African autumn, Robert Kaptein, aged 75, came limping out of the polling station.
My friend and producer Milton Nkosi recognised him immediately. They were neighbours in Orlando West, and Milton told me that Mr Kaptein's son had been "disappeared" by the security forces during one of the uprisings against apartheid. The old man had been detained and tortured himself. He smiled when he saw Milton and was happy to be interviewed. And so I asked the question I had asked a hundred times and more that day: how you do feel now that you've voted for the first time in your life?
Robert Kaptein stood there with tears glistening in his eyes, and his response I shall cherish for ever: "Today I became a human being once more." That was it, I thought. That was what all of this was really about: not politics or economics but the triumph of humanity. That was what apartheid had denied, what every dictatorship tries to deny: the singularity of human beings. It is a point worth remembering on this anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
But let's stay with South Africa here. I was thinking of Robert Kaptein this week as the people of South Africa went to the polls once more. I am in Spain, on holiday, and watching the second democratic election from afar; it does not seem the great shining occasion that I remembered in 1994. But then how could it be? April '94 was the moment of deliverance; it was the liberation election. South Africa has moved from the age of the mythic into that of the practical. That is what the succession of Thabo Mbeki is about and why so much of the criticism of him as lacking Mandela's charisma, of being too much of a technocrat, is so wrongheaded.
The country doesn't need charisma right now. Not with rampant crime, chronic unemployment (a staggering 37 per cent) and huge backlogs in housing and services. Why do you think black South Africans gave the ANC such a huge share of the vote? It was because they believe that Mr Mbeki will provide the jobs and houses and schools that the first post-liberation government failed to deliver. I spent three weeks last Christmas in one of the huge squatter camps outside Johannesburg and repeatedly asked people whether they would be voting for the ANC this time around. There was a lot of complaining about what hadn't been delivered, about the gangsters who were terrorising the community and the police who were failing to catch them. But everyone I met said they would be voting for the ANC. "We will give them one more chance," was the typical response.
This was not a vote to enable the ANC to become an all-powerful, arrogant monolith; not a vote to allow the party turn into a political monster. The single most important message of this election is that black South Africans believe Mbeki can make their lives better and that no other political leader in the country has anything like the same capacity. If the vote in '94 was about the defeat of an old order and gratitude for the struggle of an older generation, this election has been about the hope invested in a younger cadre of leaders.
The great danger is that the ANC's propensity for arrogance - and it is considerable - will undermine efforts to create a country fit for the majority of its people. There is too often a tendency to denounce criticism as unpatriotic, to blame the failures of the present on the apartheid past, and to demonise enemies,whether they are white liberals or black opponents. That nonsense will stop only when somebody like Mbeki offers a lead and reins in some of the party's more bellicose spokesmen. Talking about the redistribution of wealth and inequalities in society is perfectly valid and necessary; but that is a far cry from the kind of "blame whitey" politics some ANC figures tend to fall back on whenever they are criticised.
Mbeki seemed to recognise the need for a more mature debate when he spoke yesterday of entrenching the democratic values in the constitution. This was code language for: "Don't worry, we are not going to use a two-thirds majority to destroy press freedom and parliamentary accountability." I hope he means it. For all the public protestations of worry about the perilous state of the country, there is an air of complacency about many senior ANC leaders, a sense that, with apartheid gone, the worst is over.
Racial autocracy may be over but the gangsters are running riot and corruption is seeping into too many areas of public life. The people who have given Mbeki the big mandate for change will not be patient for ever. He can begin to show that he means business by naming a cabinet that puts less emphasis on old loyalties and more on genuine ability. One of Mandela's great failings - and, yes, loyalty can be a failing - was to promote old colleagues from the days of the struggle into jobs for which they had little or no aptitude. I think of the hapless Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alfred Nzo, and the two incumbents who hold the ministries of education and health. With the kind of mandate he has been given, Mbeki doesn't need to dispense favours to the incompetent or the incapable. Bringing in some of the younger leaders - those who stayed inside South Africa during the struggle - would be a positive signal.
What about luring somebody like Cyril Ramaphosa - the architect of the whole negotiation process - back into politics from his profitable exile in the world of business? He was a political rival in the past but Thabo Mbeki should be confident enough now to bring somebody of Ramaphosa's exceptional ability into the political mainstream again.
As I was writing this column the mobile phone went and my old friend from South Africa, Milton Nkosi, was on the line. He had spent the past days racing frantically around Johannesburg and the townships, from one polling station to another. But he sounded happy and confident about the future.
"It may look boring from where you are, but who would have thought we could have democracy working like this here?" he said. There had been no violence, no rigging of the vote. And for all the caveats I have entered above, I am inclined to agree with Milton. There is hope for South Africa and we must give Mbeki the time to prove himself. The age of the giants is over - Mandela, Sisulu, Tambo are part of a great history now. Mr Mbeki may seem a smaller figure, but his imprint on South African history could prove no less decisive.
The writer is a BBC special correspondentReuse content