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South African Elections: A saying that lifts the heart even against impossible odds - Commentary

THERE'S an expression in South Africa, as common among blacks as among whites, used in English as in Afrikaans. 'We'll make a plan.'

It denotes optimism, even against impossible odds. It means that you have no idea how you are going to solve a problem, be it as trivial as deciding where to go to dinner or as serious as persuading Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi to take part in the elections, but you are confident that when the crunch comes you will sort it out, you will make a plan.

No expression, no thought, captures better South Africa's predicament today. No one had a clue five years ago how the apartheid question was going to be settled but, well, a plan was made and blacks and whites are voting together for the first time. During those five years new problems, complicating a solution to the Big Problem, reared their heads. If it wasn't the political prisoners issue, it was amnesty for the security forces; if it wasn't the white right, it was the black right.

Anyone who imagined that the final consummation of 'the process' was going to go without a hitch was forgetting that eleventh- hour complications are as much a part of South Africa as the elephants in Kruger Park. The bombing campaign that began on Sunday and has so far claimed 21 lives raised the fear that the tortuous negotiating of the last four years might prove in vain.

Yesterday morning we awoke to learn a bomb had gone off at Johannesburg's Jan Smuts Airport. On Tuesday General Johan van der Merwe, the spectacularly unimpressive Commissioner of Police, had declared that a breakthrough in the bombing campaign investigation was imminent. Yeah, sure, South Africans said. We've heard that one before. The instinct to scepticism appeared to have been justified by the airport bomb. But then it emerged that no one had died and that someone had been arrested. And then, in the afternoon, General van der Merwe confounded us all by announcing that the police had made 31 arrests, that the terror ring had been cracked. He'd done it. He'd made a plan.

Maybe more bombs will go off today. But for the moment the biggest problem concerns the confusion about the voting, the failure of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to get the polling mechanics right.

Chief Buthelezi was suddenly suggesting he might pull out of the elections altogether. When he complains that his supporters have not had sufficient voter education, he overlooks the fact that it was they themselves who only two weeks ago were killing voter educators on sight. When he complains that not enough Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) stickers have been printed to add to ballot papers, he forgets the problem was generated by his stubborn - and ultimately fatuous - refusal to agree to contest the elections until the last possible minute.

Nevertheless, he does have a point. Judge Johan Kriegler, the IEC chairman, had assured him that he could make a plan to accommodate Inkatha. That plan has not worked altogether satisfactorily and, no doubt, the good judge will now come up with another one. Whatever it is, he will have to make sure that every South African has had the opportunity to vote if he or she wishes.

The thrust of the negotiations exercise has been to make the elections as inclusive as possible. It would be preposterous, now that all the parties bar the lunatic right are officially on board, if individual supporters of all the parties were physically unable to exercise their fundamental democratic right.

But if there is one thing South Africans have always been good at - whether it is circumventing sanctions or forging impossible constitutions - it is thinking on their feet. In the end they muddle through. They make a plan.