Outcome's sure, but future's not Vote today likely to go to Mandela SOUTH AFRICA -- FREEDOM'S HARD ROAD SOUTH AFRICA'S HISTORIC ELECTION

April 26, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,New York TimesJohannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africans cast their ballots beginning today in this country's first multiracial election -- a simple act of freedom bought with the blood of thousands that signals the end of the white man's attempt to enforce the destiny of Africa.

Finally, the sound of pencils marking ballots should be heard louder than the blasts of bombs that rocked the march to black independence even as the polls were ready to open, although they foretold a measure of terrorism that could severely disturb this country's future.

The immediate outcome of three days of voting is not in doubt. The election is bound to make Nelson Mandela the country's new president, four years after he emerged from more than a quarter-century in prison for resisting apartheid.

The future is less certain, both in terms of fulfilling the expectations of millions of black South Africans and in the new government's ability to overcome the fierce resistance of those who refuse to accept the inevitability of change.

Though there were widespread protests against racist laws in the 1950s, it was the killing of 69 people during a demonstration in the township of Sharpeville in 1960 that thrust South Africa into the world's consciousness. Mr. Mandela then led the ANC into an armed struggle against apartheid. He was convicted of high treason and began serving a life sentence in 1963.

In 1976, protests that started in schools in Soweto spread across the country. In some ways they did not end until the declaration by President F. W. de Klerk in January 1990 freeing Mr. Mandela and promising negotiations that would lead to all-inclusive elections.

But even as the shackles began to loosen on South Africa's blacks, the battle for political dominance among them emerged. Thousands died in turf battles between those loyal to the ANC and others who pledged allegiance to the Inkatha Freedom Party, fights that lessened in intensity only a week ago when Inkatha's Mangosuthu Buthelezi agreed to join the elections.

Today ballots are being cast by the elderly and hospitalized, those in prisons and those overseas voting at embassies and consulates. Tomorrow, masses of South Africans -- close to 20 million are expected -- will begin two days of voting.

If all goes according to plan, the Independent Electoral Commission -- which has put this incredible undertaking together in less than four months -- expects to announce the results by Saturday night.

"All violence is deplorable, and all deaths are tragic, the death of innocent people all the more so," said Johann Kriegler, chairman of the electoral commission, referring to the bombings on Sunday and yesterday which took 20 lives.

'But that should not make us forget that the real meaning of these days is joy," he said. "There is a joyful anticipation of that which has engaged so many people for so long now that it is about to happen."

But a troubling question still hangs in the air. What will happen when the votes are counted, the new president is in office, the euphoria has passed and millions of South Africa's blacks find that after seeing their impossible dream of a non-racial democracy come true, the work has really just begun?

Indeed, one fear often voiced is that Mr. Mandela's ANC has raised the expectations of its supporters to unrealistic levels, that the disappointment that will follow could lead the country into chaos.

But Cyril Ramaphosa, general secretary of the ANC, disagreed. "Yes, our people do have expectations," he said. "But they are understandable expectations. They have lived in a condition of degradation and suffered immensely over the years.

"They have not even had basic facilities, running water, electricity. There is nothing wrong in people expecting these things, a water tap, electricity, a roof over their heads. These are not outrageous expectations.

"We must find the resources to meet these expectations or otherwise the struggle of our people has been in vain."

Many South African whites seem to enjoy spreading urban legends of maids convinced they will get their employer's house the day after the election, or gardeners who plan to drive off in the employer's Mercedes. But interviews with blacks in townships and rural communities almost always reveal the same basic list of what is expected of the new government: for roads to be paved, for schools to be repaired, more and better housing.

Laurence Schlemmer of the Human Science Research Council, who has done extensive polling for the past several months, said he does not expect widespread disappointment even if the government is slow to deliver on its promises.

That is because his polls show that, more than anything else, the majority of South Africans expect this election to deliver "non-material expectations."

"They expect to be treated with dignity. Their status as a human being, as a South African, is non-negotiable," he said. "Quite frankly, I feel that this elections is more about honor and status than it is about houses and jobs.

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