South African Elections: Confusion reigns as the count crawls along

BY YESTERDAY evening, 36 hours after counting started in the South African election, only 16 per cent of the vote had been officially tallied. If the remainder of the count proceeds at the same pitiful rate, it will continue until the end of next week.

Mercifully, this seems unlikely (although anything is possible). The best projections of the harassed and discredited officials of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is that the count should be over by tomorrow night.

More disturbing, the virtual collapse of the original counting procedure has revealed deep flaws in the organisation of the election. It is clear that the same flaws provided opportunities for systematic fraud; what remains unclear is how widely the opportunities were seized.

On the whole, international and domestic observers are convinced the election was honest, if messy. But ANC officials have accused the Inkatha Freedom Party of stuffing whole ballot boxes with bogus votes in KwaZulu-Natal; senior National Party officials in the Northern Transvaal accused the ANC of 'rigging' the local poll in precisely the same way.

Confusion in the count took many forms: too many vote- counters turned up in some places; too few in others; computers failed; unidentified ballot boxes turned up in counting stations; others went missing altogether; scuffles broke out after an IEC official was found with a car full of unused ballot papers and empty ballot boxes.

But the muddle had two root causes. The first was the failure of the election rules to demand a separate, official count of how many people voted. There was no electoral roll; anyone with a valid identity document could vote wherever they wanted. Without a head- count of voters, there was no final line of defence against ballot- stuffing by corrupt or partisan election officials.

The second source of confusion was the decision - for the best of motives - to by-pass the political parties and the existing, suspect Afrikaner bureaucracy. The IEC, headed by Judge Johan Kriegler - a man with no administrative experience - made a creditable effort to employ people right across the racial, social and educational spectrum. The result was perhaps predictable: scrupulous attention to the rules in some areas; sloppiness and errors in others.

When the count began on Saturday morning, the looseness of the procedure, and the weaknesses of the instant, electoral bureaucracy, produced gridlock. Many of the 1,200 counting stations failed to open. Scores of others got bogged down for hours on the first stage of the counting process: the checking of the number of ballot papers in boxes against the number issued at each polling station. This proved to be a nightmare: documentation had not been completed properly and the origin of hundreds of ballot boxes was unclear.

On Saturday night, the entire count appeared doomed to collapse into chaos, throwing the validity of the election itself into doubt. The embattled and rumpled Justice Kriegler appeared on television to announce his Gordian solution. He was abandoning the preliminary - 're-conciliation' - stage of the count altogther. In any case, he calmly announced, it was pointless wiithout a separate count of how many people had voted.

Unfortunately, yesterday afternoon, 18 hours after Justice Kriegler's announcement, counting stations all over the country were stubbornly wrestling with the procedure he had abandoned. Gradually, they all moved on to the count proper, raising hopes that the process might end some time today.

Justice Kriegler told a television interviewer: 'It is right that it is like this. It is our country and that's the way we are . We are not super- efficient all the time.

'What we've got to do isn't to certify the election as meticulous . . . what we've got to do is say whether this process . . . is a good enough test of the will of the people.'

Trek of the good Afrikaner, page 14

(Photographs,map and graphics omitted)

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