Nelson Mandela Campaigns in Transvaal for First Free Presidential Election

Nelson Mandela’s Road to Victory: A Photographer Looks Back

In 1994, Mandela ran for South Africa’s presidency — and made history. Brooks Kraft reflects on covering one of the world’s great leaders.

In the Oval Office, aboard Air Force One, on the campaign trail — veteran photographer Brooks Kraft has spent much of his career documenting the country's political leaders in moments both public and private. In all, Kraft has covered eight U.S. presidential campaigns, but perhaps his most formative election experience occurred some 8,000 miles away from the Beltway. In 1994, Kraft spent four months in South Africa, photographing the country's tumultuous transformation — including the election that made Nelson Mandela South Africa's president.

"It was actually the first major international news story I ever worked on," Kraft tells FOTO. "The only regret I have is that I was such a young photographer. To a certain extent, I knew it was special, I knew it was historic, I knew it was a big deal, but I don't think I had a really good perspective on how unusual it was. I would give my right arm to be able to photograph him again today."

On the 100th anniversary of Mandela's birth, Kraft takes FOTO onto the campaign trail — and inside Mandela's historic win.

Campaign of Nelson Mandela in North Transvaal Brooks Kraft/Sygma via Getty Images


The majority of Kraft's Mandela images come from a two-week tour through a region then known as North Transvaal, north of Johannesburg. Kraft and a couple of other photographers trailed the South African icon — who had been released from prison just four years earlier, after having served 27 years — as he met with the area's disparate residents. Ask Kraft about the kind of man Mandela was, and he'll recall the way in which the future president talked to people — all sorts of people.

nelson mandela greets supports at a campaign stop after more then 27 picture  af2dc268 ed81 4186 a8c3 80da6f489bd2 Brooks Kraft/Sygma via Getty Images

"There were two components to [Mandela's] visits," Kraft remembers. "We would usually start by having a small meeting with white Afrikaner farmers. They'd sit around a table and have lunch. He would meet with these people who knew that big changes for South Africa were on the horizon, and that they could even potentially lose ownership of their land. He had the ability to communicate and connect with them. And then 10 minutes later he would go out into the township and speak to tens of thousands of people who have no running water, no money, and who have lived under oppression their entire lives, and they would be equally engrossed by him. You got the sense that everyone believed him. He was an extraordinary communicator, the likes of which I've never seen including all of the U.S. presidents that I've covered."

Nelson Mandela Campaigns in South Africa Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images


And Mandela was just as comfortable engaging with huge crowds as he was speaking one-on-one to supporters. "He loved people," says Kraft. "Some politicians don't really thrive on that kind of connection, but he he loved it and he was really good at it." (Pictured: Mandela dances with school children at an African National Congress campaign rally.)

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Nelson Mandela Retrospective Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images


While the quintessential image of Mandela is eyes alight and smile broad, Kraft attempted to also capture the leader's quieter, more pensive moments, knowing the massive responsibilities Mandela would assume. "I think he knew that as great and as historic and as happy as he was about the fact that there was finally going to be democracy in South Africa, he knew it was going to be a minefield," Kraft tells FOTO. "That's one of the reasons I like this tight portrait that was used on the cover of The Economist. Obviously the smiling pictures were the bread and butter and used on many magazine covers, but I was also looking for something that may have been able to speak to the enormity of what he faced once he became president of South Africa."

Nelson Mandela Campaigns in Transvaal for First Free Presidential Election
Second day of the elections in South Africa
Brooks Kraft/Sygma via Getty Images Brooks Kraft/Sygma via Getty Images First day of the elections in South Africa Brooks Kraft/Sygma via Getty Images


When not trailing Mandela, Kraft documented other aspects of the election, which included parking himself at polling places to photograph the many first-time voters. "You could feel just how important it was; it was so meaningful that people didn’t even care about waiting eight, 10 hours in line to vote," says Kraft. "It was a life-changing experience for them. Especially the older faces. I kind of tried to focus on that a lot when I shot — people who have lived through decades and decades of apartheid and oppression."

First day of the elections in South Africa Brooks Kraft/Sygma via Getty Images


Mandela's official victory party was a rather staid affair, held in a hotel ballroom in Johannesburg. And though Kraft covered the event, he much prefers these images, taken from just outside, which show the utter joy and elation on the faces of those who gathered to celebrate the historic win. "The photos I shot of the people out in the streets there at night," says Kraft, "for me, those are much more memorable."

Campaign of Nelson Mandela in North Transvaal Brooks Kraft/Sygma via Getty Images


Of all the pictures Kraft made of Mandela, there's one that he feels encapsulates Mandela's character above all others. "I love the picture of him from behind with his arms stretched out," Kraft tells FOTO. "Even though you don't see his face, it captures his persona. There are so many pictures of him with his fist pumping and all that sort of stuff. He was a fighter, yes, but to me that wasn't really Mandela, that didn't really capture his personality, and the way that he reached out and opened himself up to people of so many different backgrounds."

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