Where Voting Really Matters

April 29, 1994

South Africa's election is a triumph of people taking possession of their country. The quotations of joy and awe by countless South Africans voting for the first time -- Nelson Mandela not least -- are wonderful to read. As several said, they have waited hundreds of years.

Which explains why they would wait hours, the better part of a day, to cast a ballot, mostly in well-behaved, orderly lines with no jumping the queue. Whites waiting behind blacks, blacks behind whites, mistress and housemaid voting together, revolutionaries with ballots not bullets.

The extension to a fourth day of voting in six rural regions of black homelands was unfortunately necessary but symbolic of the tremendous effort of the government and electoral machinery to be inclusive. What has gone wrong in this election -- some intimidation, bomb scares, inadequate polling places and ballot shortages -- is far less impressive than what has gone right.

It's inspiring that all has gone so well, and not surprising that some of it hasn't. There are no voter rolls; the census was never thought accurate; the electoral authorities had no idea how many voters were in some districts; an important regional party switched from boycott to participation at the last minute.

Compare this with the last U.S. election, in which some 55 percent of the eligible adults bothered to vote, making Bill Clinton president. Barely half did four years earlier, when George Bush won. How many Marylanders will bother to choose their governor in November?

And contrast it with the cynicism and indifference about elections growing in Russia and Eastern Europe, where the first free vote was as exciting as this one in South Africa.

The people of South Africa were voting for elections, democracy, self-government and popular sovereignty. In that sense, this has been one of the most important elections in history anywhere, one that will reverberate throughout Africa for years. It is not only in white-minority-ruled countries that black majorities should exercise control over how they are governed.

The people invariably believe in the reality of democracy, until office-holders and politicians alienate them. It is up to the elected few to be worthy of the electing many, to justify the trust placed in them. Too often, spoils-seeking victors do not, whether in the United States, the Soviet Union or an African country, and that is what deters disillusioned voters from bothering next time. Perhaps that will happen in South Africa, too.

Meanwhile, this election is a wonder and inspiration to behold.

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