NATION HEADS TO POLLS_Family Steps Out of Shadows

By MICHAEL O. ALLEN and GENE MUSTAIN, Daily News Staff Writers | Thursday, April 28, 1994

SOWETO—As dusk turned to dawn on the historic day, Wilson Gwala forgot about his bad heart and his recent kidney problems, and refused to wait.

Someone was supposed to come take him to the polls later in the day, so Gwala — an apartheid lifetime of arrrets and detentions now behind him — could vote in an election in South Africa for the first time. But sunlight streaming through his tiny home was a symbol too powerful to ignore.

“It seemed like it was the first time the sun rose over Soweto,” the 70-year-old grandfather said, “like I was seeing the sun for the first time, like someone peeled the scales off my eyes, like I was born again.”

Shortly before 6, Gwala, without eating breakfast, taking his medication, or waiting for his wife, grabbed his cane and walked to the voting station. When he got there, the line of people already waiting to vote snaked around the corner and down the block.

“I was not discouraged by the long line. I just wanted to get in there and vote.”

But as his 65-year-old wife Magdalene Gwala said, he should have waited. He was too weak to make the trek because of his “high blood.”

Soon after getting in line, he fainted. “When the old man came to, they allowed him to vote and someone brought him home,” she said.

“I was very happy and excited to vote because my forefathers did not have the priviledge,” Wilson Gwala said. “I believe God kept me alive until this day so I can vote.”

Two generations of the Gwala family of Soweto voted yesterday, along with hundreds of thousands of other Sowetans.

Jacob Gwala, 34, who suffered as many apartheid-induced indignities as his father, joined a line at a different polling station about 4 a.m. and voted shortly after the polls opened at 7.

The younger Gwala, father of an 11-year-old son and a two-week-old daughter, said he hopes the dawn of the new South Africa means he will find work after five years of unemployment—or at least the opportunity to learn skills that would enable him to get that job.

“I want to see a better education system for my children,” he said. “I won’t want them to have as hard a time as I did trying to get a job.”

Jacob’s brother Patrick, a 24-year-old high school student who hopes to become a medical doctor, said the opportunity to vote “allows me to have a brighter future.”

“I see a lot of hope,” he said. “We fought for this country. This election is a direct result of the 1976 uprisings in Soweto. We fought for the education. That is because education is where everything starts.”

Magdalene Gwala, matriarch of the family, recalled the many years she spent taking care of white people’s children while her own went uncared for.

Yesterday, after voting, she said she hopes that she would be able to move out of the “matchbox” she lives in.

“A family of six should not live in a place like this,” she said of her squat, three-room house in the Mdeni section of Soweto. “We will(cq) like to have big yards, too.”