South Africa: Birth of a new order: This week, most South Africans vote for the first time. John Lichfield explains how the elections will be run, what the results will mean to a new government and profiles the main parties

BY FRIDAY afternoon at 4pm local time (3pm London), it should be possible to project the result of South Africa's first non-racial elections. But we already know the winner in the main battle for control of the National Assembly: Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, the overwhelmingly majority party in the overwhelmingly majority black community. Barring accidents and assassinations, Mandela will be chosen as the first state president of the new South Africa when the National Assembly convenes on 6 May, 10 days after the election.

The assembly will sit, as before, in Cape Town. Mandela's transitional government of national unity will be based in Pretoria, the judiciary in Bloemfontein. That much will remain the same. Almost everything else will change. And nothing better illustrates that than the first of the 33 principles that underlie the new constitution: that it 'shall provide for the establishment of one sovereign state, a common South African citizenship and a democratic system of government committed to achieving equality between men and women and people of all races.'

The new South Africa, shown on the map, will have a federal structure - how federal is a matter of bitter dispute. The four provinces and jumble of 'homelands' in the old South Africa are replaced by nine provinces. The largest, by population, will be Pretoria- Witwatersrand-Vaal (essentially the Greater Johannesburg- Pretoria area), followed by KwaZulu-Natal.

There will be two simultaneous elections: one for the federal parliament, a second for the nine provincial assemblies. Neither will involve the constituencies and the first-past-the- post election of representatives that are as familiar to white South African voters as to the British. Instead, they will employ the 'list' system of proportional representation. Seats will allocated to each party according to its share of the vote; the party hands out the seats to those on its list of candidates.

In the National Assembly, the lower (but more powerful) chamber of the federal parliament, there will be 400 seats. Half will be distributed strictly according to the share of votes won by each party nationwide; the other 200 seats are unevenly split between the nine provinces according to population and divided between the parties according to their share of the vote in that province.

In the upper, more or less consultative house (the Senate), there will be 90 seats, 10 for each province regardless of size. These will be distributed according to the parties' performance in the provinces.

All these decisions will flow from a single vote by each elector on the national ballot paper. Remember that most of these electors have never voted before and that, in rural areas, many are illiterate. They will be presented with a national ballot paper a foot long containing the names and logos of 18 parties, with a mugshot of each leader. Mandela's ANC and F W de Klerk's National Party will appear among such exotic contenders as the Kiss Party (anti- tax) and the Soccer Party (national unity through sport). A polling official will glue a sticker at the foot of each ballot paper adding the Inkatha Freedom Party, which consented to run only last week.

Originally - to keep things simple with so many first-time voters - the same act of voting was to be used for the elections for the provincial legislatures. Inkatha and other smaller outfits complained that this stacked the poll in favour of the larger parties (ie, the ANC and the Nats) by preventing people from 'splitting the ticket' between national and provincial politicians of different parties.

So there will be a second ballot paper for the nine provincial assemblies, listing up to 27 parties. The ANC could sweep them all. But the Coloured (mixed-race) vote for the National Party should win it control of the Western Cape (centred on Cape Town) and possibly Northern Cape too. The late entry of Inkatha confuses the issue in KwaZulu-Natal - there could be a 'hung' assembly - but the ANC remains favourite to win.

Although a few will vote on Tuesday, most of South Africa's 23,000,000 electors will vote on Wednesday and Thursday. Counting will start on Friday morning. Running totals will be announced at half-hourly intervals. By early afternoon, enough votes should have been counted to answer all the outstanding questions.

Most of these concern the precise composition of the National Assembly. On this depends the composition of the transitional government, which must be a coalition. The top two parties - almost certainly the ANC and the Nats - will nominate the two deputy presidents. The first deputy, who will act as a kind of prime minister, will probably be the ANC's Cyril Ramaphosa, the former mine union boss. The second deputy will probably be De Klerk.

There will be a maximum of 27 ministers. A party is entitled to one cabinet portfolio for every 20 seats it wins. Most should go to the ANC, with the Nats getting three or four ministries. The main uncertainties this week are whether Inkatha will get a ministry (the polls suggest it might, just) and whether the right-wing Freedom Front will get one (the polls suggest it probably won't).

The assembly, once in session, will have two roles. It will sit as a normal parliament; and it will act as a constitutional assembly to draw up the 'final constitution' for the new South Africa. Decisions on constitutional questions will require two-thirds of members voting in favour. This is why it is important to watch the exact proportion of the ANC vote as the results come out next week. If it gets more than 266 seats, or two-thirds of the vote, it will have a free hand.

In reality, however, it will be Inkatha and the white right, not the ANC, which will push hardest for constitutional changes. Inkatha and the white right have fought - literally in the case of Inkatha - for more power to be vested in the regions (arguing this is the only way to accommodate the country's racial and ethnic diversity).

Foreign affairs, security, national police policy, university education and most broad economic issues will be the exclusive preserve of the national government. The provinces will have some powers over, among other things, cultural affairs, primary and secondary education, health services, housing, agriculture, welfare, regional planning, roads, tourism and industrial development. The provinces will be given an 'equitable' share of national revenue and will be allowed to raise their own taxes, but only with the specific approval of the National Assembly.

Those who want a more federalist, rather than centralist, approach, complain that the national government will also be able to legislate in most of the areas allotted to the provinces and that Pretoria / Cape Town will be, in effect, holding all the purse-strings. The ANC insists that it must be this way: the gaping educational and social needs of the black community, after five decades of apartheid, can only be addressed by a national governmnent and a national strategy.

These are among the questions and arguments to whose resolution this week's election results will point. But perhaps the most important questions concern the process of voting itself. Will the voting system dissolve into confusion under the weight of official incompetence and the bewilderment of an electorate of whom seven in 10 will be voting for the first time? And, most important of all, will the election pass without significant violence?

AFRICAN NATIONAL CONGRESS

THE election is being fought according to the principles the ANC nurtured through 44 years of apartheid: one person, one vote in a single, non-racial state. The ANC manifesto is devoted to the betterment of the poor. It promises - some say foolishly - to build 300,000 houses a year for five years; electrify 2,500,000 homes by the year 2000; guarantee 10 years' free education; and transfer 30 per cent of farmland to blacks within five years. Projections suggest the ANC could get 260 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly; just short of the 66 per cent of seats needed to amend the constitution.

INKATHA FREEDOM PARTY

Inkatha refused until last week to recognise the election, protesting that the new constitution gave too little power to the provinces and failed to respect ancient kingdoms such as KwaZulu. Concessions were made on the second point but not the first. Inkatha believes in the free market and low taxation but also in affirmative action to create jobs for blacks. It has widespread support in rural KwaZulu-Natal; some among transplanted Zulus in the Johannesburg area; none elsewhere. Buthelezi might win the 20 seats needed to claim one cabinet seat, but he will probably refuse it.

PAN-AFRICANIST CONGRESS

THE PAC claims to be the authentic voice of the black masses, rejecting what it sees as a too-soft-on-whites, sell-out approach of the ANC. Fortunately for whites, the black masses stubbornly support the ANC. Clarence Makwetu - whose election picture strives to look as much as possible like Nelson Mandela's - wants to redistribute wealth from 'settlers' to Africans, nationalise industry and provide free education until 18. The true level of township support for the PAC is one of the great unknowns of the election. The most recent polls suggested that it might win up to seven seats.

FREEDOM FRONT

THE only party running on the white far right. General Constand Viljoen's FF is the standard-bearer of non-violent Afrikaner separatists who still hope to negotiate a quasi-independent Boer homeland or Volkstaat. The constitution promises that, if enough support is shown for the idea, a Raad (council) can be created to discuss what to do next. But in practice, no one has come up with workable borders for a Boer homeland. The other far-right groups - the Conservatives and the neo-Nazi AWB - are boycotting the election. The FF should win at least 16 seats.

DEMOCRATIC PARTY

THE rump of the well-meaning, hand-wringing white liberals who opposed apartheid ineffectually for years. Under the sleepy Zach De Beer, it is now running - equally ineffectually - as the party of honest government and progressive values. Its slogan is 'No murderers, terrorists, torturers or corrupt politicians'. The DP has residual support among English-speaking whites and has attracted some anti- ANC blacks, including Nelson Mandela's estranged daughter. It should win around 10 seats - not enough to claim a seat in the cabinet of the national unity government.

MATIONAL PARTY

THE architect of apartheid, running as the newly multi-racial 'party which admits it made mistakes'. The NP presents itself as the best defence against the 'Communist' ANC, as the party of law and order, the free market and, cheekily, of experience in government. F W de Klerk's manifesto stresses foreign investment and low taxation but also better health care, roads and homes. The NP is the first choice of most moderate to conservative whites, many Coloureds and some anti-ANC blacks. It should win about 60 seats: enough to claim a deputy presidency (for De Klerk) and three cabinet seats.

(Photographs, map and graphics omitted)

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