South Africa nervously waits to see if e-mail count works

THE SUCCESS of the most high-tech elections Africa has seen was still in the balance last night as a super computer in Pretoria set to work processing results from 14,500 polling stations, some of them miles from the nearest telephone line.

At the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) centre in the capital, reminiscent in layout of a Eurovision song contest stage, officials admitted to nervousness after both dry runs failed. In an election which has been largely peaceful, there are still volatile areas of the country in which a mis-reported result could spark violence.

But at 9pm last night, as most polling stations closed, officials said that even if satellite telephone links failed, only the verification of results would be affected.

Some polling stations were allowed to stay open late because long queues had developed in the morning due to the late arrival of voting materials. Among them was Orange Grove, Johannesburg, where the leader of the Democratic Party, Tony Leon, waited two hours to vote yesterday morning. And in the Freedom Park shanty town in Soweto voters were keen to cast their votes queueing from 3am before the polls opened.

The votes cast by the 18.3 million electorate are being counted at polling stations and each of the results relayed to the IEC by satellite telephone, fax and e-mail. In Pretoria, more than 400 volunteers, computer experts from South African companies, sat through Wednesday night, each at a terminal connected to nine large wall panels, one for each province.

Officials said that if the counting and processing of results went to plan, they would have registered 75 per cent of votes by 9am today. The arrangements are in stark contrast to the 1994 elections, which were spread over three days and widely disrupted by violence. Then, the final result was not made public for nearly a week. In some areas, disruption was so bad that voting officials and parties had to make back-room agreements on results.

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