South Africa vote an occasion for joy

April 28, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- With patience and exuberance, millions of South Africans strutted onto the stage of history yesterday, casting their ballots in the country's first nonracial election.

The first of two days of general voting was far from problem-free, as the failure to deliver ballots and other equipment caused delays at many polling stations and shutdowns at others.

But that did little to reduce the sheer joy of the day. Waits of five or six hours were not uncommon, but they were endured by people who had waited much longer to make their "X" on a paper ballot in an election open to all South Africans,an adventure celebrated by both blacks and whites yesterday.

Little more than a week ago, when the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party still planned a boycott, most thought that hundreds would die during the voting. That fear was renewed when bombs took 21 lives Sunday and Monday.

But there was not one reported election-related violent death yesterday. South Africa, where violence has been the norm, may end up having one of history's more peaceful transitions to democracy.

The day was not without violence. A car bomb detonated at Johannesburg's Jan Smuts airport, injuring 16 people and causing extensive damage to the international departures terminal.

Later, police announced the arrest of 31 whites and the confiscation of a large cache of arms and explosives, claiming that they had broken up the right-wing groups responsible for the bombings.

Across the country, streets deserted on the national holiday attracted lines of people that snaked through parking lots, down sidewalks, around blocks, providing onlookers with a stunning portrait of the power of democracy.

As the 7 a.m. poll opening approached in the Orlando section of Soweto, the township southwest of Johannesburg that nurtured the anti-apartheid movement and is now home to perhaps 4 million blacks, the line went from the side door of the United Congregational Church around and out a gate, then made another loop, winding completely around the block.

"I want to get on with this," said an excited Jacob Ntshangase, 42, who turned out before the sun took the chill off. "This is a big day. We've been waiting hundreds of years."

He had been in line for two hours and probably faced another two before he could vote. Inside the church, election workers struggled to lock the ballot boxes with a metal rod, secure it with a twisted wire, then seal it with melted wax.

"I will never forget this day," said Roger Mgwenye, 39, as he waited. "This is something I will tell my grandchildren about."

At 7:45 the first voters came into the church, showed their identification, put their hands under ultraviolet light to prove they had not voted before, received their national ballot, marked it in a triangular booth, placed it in a ballot box, took a regional ballot and did the same, then walked out the side door.

The 45-minute delay in opening was minor compared to difficulties endured at many other voting places. At Soweto's Klipspruit Hostel, voters began lining up next to a muddy cattle pen at 5:30 a.m. It was not until 9:45 that the first voter passed a razor wire barrier and was searched by police before casting his ballot.

On the other side of Johannesburg, in the troubled East Rand township of Katlehong, hundreds milled about the town's dilapidated D. H. Williams auditorium in midafternoon. Voting did not get under way until 11:30, though some had been waiting since well before 6 a.m.

In many parts of Katlehong and in other East Rand townships, polls did not open. The problem was a failure to deliver ballots. Military helicopters were used to bring in ballots, but not enough for all stations.

Judge Johann Kriegler, chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission, which is running the election, said a number of factors contributed to the problems.

"We had an abnormally high turnout in the whole of the country," he said last night. "In some parts of the country we were able to meet the demand. In others, we were not."

Problems also arose in providing polling places with the stickers that had to be affixed to every ballot to include the Inkatha Freedom Party, which ended its boycott of the election with only a week to go. Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi again threatened to pull out of the vote.

Judge Kriegler said that some 8 million new ballots, which include Inkatha, were to be printed last night and distributed to many of the troubled areas for today's third day of voting. Polls were allowed to stay open past the 7 p.m. closing time at the discretion of each station official, and the possibility of extending voting through Friday was advanced.

Late yesterday afternoon, President F. W. de Klerk announced that today, too, would be a national holiday in order to get as many people to the polls as possible.

Election officials hoped that with so many of the 18 million expected voters turning out on the second day, today's voting would go much more smoothly, quieting criticism.

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