S. Africa begins new era

April 27, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

KATLEHONG, South Africa -- When old people come to Natalspruit Hospital, they are usually driven there by the pain of an illness or the fear of violence.

But yesterday it was the thrill of freedom that drew them. The elderly of the troubled townships of Katlehong and Tokoza southeast of Johannesburg arrived at the hospital to be among the first voters in South Africa's historic multiracial election.

And at midnight -- hours after the polls had closed on the first day of voting -- South Africa lowered its old flag, symbolizing the end of white minority rule, and introduced a new post-apartheid constitution.

The old standard combining British and Afrikaner emblems was ceremoniously lowered around the country, and a new national flag ushered in a black-led democratic era.

The new banner will greet the first day of general voting today, when an expected 18 million voters begin marking ballots. Yesterday was a day of balloting set aside for special voters -- the disabled, the elderly, prisoners and South Africans living overseas.

Natalspruit Hospital, which often opened its gates as a haven for refugees when violence tore apart the surrounding neighborhoods, was one of about 2,200 polling stations.

It turned out not to be enough. Starting before dawn, the elderly in particular came by the thousands, overwhelming the polling places.

After two days of anti-election violence preceding the vote, it was clear that South African election officials did not expect the special polling day to be so popular.

It did provide a dress rehearsal for those running the election, a chance to work out the kinks, as well as a sneak preview of what can be expected today when 9,000 polling places will be open.

And there were plenty of kinks yesterday. Combined with the unexpected crowds, they resulted in long delays for many first-time voters. Some particularly troubled districts kept polls open until 10 p.m., a three-hour extension.

There were also the expected charges of irregularities, particularly from officials of the Inkatha Freedom Party. They claimed that problems with the sticker needed to include their party's name on the ballot at the last minute meant that an additional day of voting was needed.

Election officials emphasized that there are still two more days of voting, which should allow everyone to cast a ballot, though the possibility of an additional day in KwaZulu/Natal was raised.

At Natalspruit, the ballots were late in arriving. At 9:30 -- 2 1/2 hours after the opening time -- some officials were carefully affixing the Inkatha stickers to ballots while others were trying to secure the lock on a ballot box. Outside, hundreds of people -- almost all elderly, a few disabled and pregnant women -- sat along a low brick wall, exhibiting the patience of people who had waited a lifetime for this moment.

Christine Vanqua was not deterred, even though by the time voting finally started at 10 a.m., she had been waiting for five hours. The 80-year-old woman had walked from her nearby house before dawn with one goal in mind, to be the first in line. She succeeded.

"I'm glad," she said, and then started to do a little dance. "I just want to jive."

She had high hopes for the new South Africa. "I want things to change," she said. "We must all live together, everybody the same. We don't want the whites to go away; we want them to live with us. But we must all live the same lives."

Mrs. Vanqua said she just retired in January from her job as a domestic worker for a white family that paid her about $100 a month.

"We must work together to build a new South Africa," she said. "It's in tatters now."

In the line behind Mrs. Vanqua, many could express little more than their happiness.

"I am tremendously happy," said Alois Khumalo, a 68-year-old retired school principal. "I thought it would happen one day. . . . God did it for the Israelites, I knew he would do the same for us. If you read the Bible, you see that all people who God loves have to suffer."

About 15 miles to the north, the elderly packed a community center in the crowded black township of Alexandra, sitting in an outdoor courtyard, waiting to get inside and mark their ballots. Several were in wheelchairs. One woman came in carried in a wheelbarrow. Just outside the gate, an asthma sufferer stopped to rest before she continued inside.

"I am happy to vote. This is the first time this has happened in South Africa," said 67-year-old Joel Radebe.

Late in the afternoon, back at Natalspruit, Ezekiel Moloi was finally nearing the door to the polling place. He had been waiting for nine hours.

Slowly, patiently, Mr. Moloi moved down the hallway to the station. Like those around him, he took out the identification book he would need to vote. At 4:52 p.m., with a smile on his face, Mr. Moloi handed his ballot to an election official.

"What can I say? It's a long time that we were waiting for this to happen," the 62-year-old said. "I feel the same as a child when he is dreaming. I have been thinking about this time in South Africa and am glad I am alive when it came."

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