In April 1994, I had the privilege to be nominated by my European parliamentary group as an election observer at South Africa’s first free democratic elections.
In the prevailing circumstances at home, I was not contesting the upcoming European Parliament election, freeing me to undertake this mission. On voting day in South Africa, at 5am in a township in the Western Cape, we arrived to inspect a polling station. Hundreds of people queued. By then, already, the line was perhaps almost a kilometre long.
I spoke to a lady at the front, and enquired when she had arrived. She replied that she had stood all night because she wanted to be the first black woman to vote in South Africa.
Preparing to return, I stood in the departure hall at Cape Town airport. A small number of students were saying a long and lingering goodbye to their families. They began to sing the beautiful Nkosi Sikelel Iafrika, the new national anthem. At first they sang on their own, then were joined by a few more and then by tens of participants, all colours, all races, all part of one new family at its birth.
It was moving and inspirational, and suffused my consciousness as I headed for the departure gate to return to Strasbourg and report to my colleagues. I returned to Ireland with less than 48 hours to the close of nominations, and decided to contest the elections as an independent candidate, carried on the crest of this South African wave of faith in mass democracy.
I won by the narrowest of margins. This moment turned out to be personally transformative. Less than eight years later, it evolved into the presidency of the European Parliament. I thank South Africa and my wonderful friends and family for helping to make that improbable prospect a reality.