A ballot from the 1994 South Africa election when Nelson Mandela was elected president. Phoenix resident, Norris Barker plans to sell the ballots and use the money to build sculptures of former president. / Mark Henle, The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX -- Norris Barker remembers with striking clarity the day he met Nelson Mandela.
Barker, an American living in South Africa at the time, was driving from a funeral when he began to have car trouble. He went looking for help and found himself at a world-trade center in South Africa where Mandela was speaking at a banquet.
"He had such a gentle voice, and he was so charismatic," Barker said of the Oct. 7, 1990, meeting with the anti-apartheid leader, who became South Africa's first black president in 1994. "It was like divine intervention."
Barker, a Mandela enthusiast, later acquired 1.5 million official ballots that went unused in the 1994 all-races election that marked the end of apartheid.
The ballots, now considered collector's items, measure 8 by 18 inches. They feature color photos of the candidates, including Mandela, and their 19 parties and flags.
Barker, a math teacher at an online high school, continues to sell the unmarked ballots, which feature Mandela in the 12th spot.
Barker said proceeds from sales of the ballots could help him promote and build sculptures of the 94-year-old South African icon, who remained in a hospital Friday battling a lung infection.
"Because I've lived here (in Arizona) for 20 years now, I would love to put a sculpture in Scottsdale," Barker said.
The ballots sell for $57.50 individually or $129 framed on Barker's website, Afridom.com.
Mandela, a political prisoner for 27 years, rose to power to serve as South Africa's president from 1994 to 1999.
He was hospitalized in early June to treat a recurring lung infection, and his health was said to be improving Friday, according to The Associated Press.
Barker, 74, said the commemorative bronze sculptures could depict Mandela alongside his great-granddaughter Zenani Mandela, 13, who was killed in a car crash three years ago in South Africa.
"I'm not a wealthy person myself," Barker said, "but I've been given a tremendous opportunity here."
Representatives of Scottsdale Public Art had not heard of Barker's proposal, though Jana Weldon, senior project manager, said the program allows citizens to initiate public art.
"Generally, citizen-initiated ideas do tend to be memorial art," Weldon said.
Barker also talked about placing sculptures on tribal land of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, as well as in Kansas, his home state, and in Africa.
Barker, who holds dual citizenship in the United States and South Africa, has been an entrepreneur, tennis champion, activist and teacher. Born in Wichita, Kan., he attended Wichita State University and served in the Army from 1962 to 1964.
In 1970, Barker founded Jeans Unlimited Inc., a chain of blue-jeans stores that later shuttered.
After his marriage dissolved, Barker jetted off to Africa in 1982, settling as a teacher at private "street colleges" and, later, integrated government schools.
"My journeys through Africa lasted for nearly 15 years," Barker said.
Barker now owns Afridom.com, a website and LLC, and teaches math to high-school students who need to pass Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards exam.
Barker bought the ballots, put up for auction by the South African government, for $2 million, according to past Arizona Republic reports.
Todd Belfer, Barker's former business partner, has donated a portion of his ballots to school districts in recent years, he said.
"Right now we're trying to give back," said Belfer, a founder and managing partner of Scottsdale-based Canal Partners LLC. "It's pretty informative and educational for these kids."
With the spotlight on Mandela and South Africa, Belfer said he could sell ballots again.
"We might revive it with all the attention," he said. "I'm glad people are finally paying attention to Mandela and all the great things he's done in the world."
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