Lesson in democracy a perilous venture into unknown S. Africa

April 18, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

VERULAM, SOUTH AFRICA — This is one in a series of occasional articles about the first multiracial elections to be held April 26-28 in South Africa.

VERULAM, South Africa -- Much of the complexity and simplicity of South Africa's first adventure in full democracy seems to be contained in the 50 square feet of orange tent set up on a busy corner in this market town.

The tent, shaking in the warm humid breeze coming off the hills of sugar cane plantations only a few miles from the Indian Ocean, represented a tiny percentage of the tens of millions of dollars that have been spent to educate this population about voting.

Inside, a group of students from the Durban area, organized by the Muslim Student Organization, was offering instruction on how to vote.

It seems simple enough. If you are over 18 and have a document identifying you as a South African citizen, you put your hands under an ultraviolet light, dip them in an ink that would show up if you tried to vote again, get a ballot, go into a booth and put an X next to the party you want to vote for.

If you are illiterate, as about half the 18 million first-time voters are, there's a symbol and picture of the leader of each party -- in full color.

Then it gets a little complicated, because you have to vote again on another ballot for the regional election. But the real complication in this part of Natal is that Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party is boycotting the election.

The act of voting itself becomes an act of courage that can have deadly consequences.

"We have to show people that they need to vote to bring about change," said Yusuf Radebe, who was working in one of the tents. "We tell them that we've waited for this for 400 years. The right to vote is in your pocket. It's just a question of how you use that right."

But a few miles up the coast, in Tongaat, a group of men had come into one of the tents early in the morning, demanding to know why Chief Buthelezi's picture was not on the sample ballot, acting so threatening that the educators closed up shop.

Nearby, Stembiso Ngcobo was stacking sacks of potatoes. He had left his home in a nearby township recently because of the violence.

"I don't know about this voting," he said.

As Gloria Zulu waited for a taxi nearby, she looked over her shoulder when asked about voting.

"This place is dominated by Inkatha," she said. "People here don't want to vote. It's a very scary time."

Violence is evidence

Just how scary was demonstrated a few days later when six young men hired to hand out voter education pamphlets in the nearby townships of Ndewdwe were tortured and murdered.

It is the major tragedy of South Africa's first nonracial election that many people who have waited so long for the right to vote and who, according to the polls, want to vote, will not be able to because of threats and intimidation.

And even without the problems associated with Inkatha's boycott, putting on these elections has been a major task in the face of inexperience, anxieties still deep-seated from apartheid and primitive suspicions.

The Independent Electoral Commission, charged with overcoming all of this, started with one employee on Dec. 20. By the time the first votes are cast beginning April 26, it will have more than 200,000 employees.

"No organization can be expected to expand at that rate without glitches," said Johann Kriegler, the judge from the country's highest court who chairs the commission.

And it's not just a matter of people. There will be 9,000 voting stations. Inside will be 108,000 fold-up voting booths, constructed by prisoners last year. Some of the 126,000 ballot boxes are still being built.

Printers in Britain are turning out the 84 million ballots required in the two-ballot -- one national, one regional -- system.

The wax-sealed ballot boxes will be taken to 1,200 counting stations where bank tellers, paid about $100 a day for their efforts, will add up the results.

As many as 20 million people are expected to vote. Perhaps 18 million of them have never voted before. Half may be illiterate, many living in rural settlements, some still ruled by chiefs, coming out of cultures that have no tradition of democracy.

"You have to realize that we're not just talking about people who are illiterate," said the Rev. Sean O'Leary, a priest from Ireland who has worked in South Africa for a decade and helps administer many voter education programs. "We're talking about people who have never held a pencil in their hands before."

Father O'Leary was not sure whether the education efforts have been enough.

"Our figures show that we've directly reached only about 25 percent of the population, measured in the number who have attended a voter education session," he said.

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