South African Elections: Flag is lowered on white minority rule

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SOUTH AFRICA lowered its old flag symbolising the end of white minority rule and introduced a new post-apartheid constitution at midnight last night. The old standard combining British and Afrikaner emblems was ceremonially lowered around the country and a new national flag ushered in the democratic era.

But the country's first democratic election may have to be prolonged by an extra day following an error-strewn but bomb-free first day of voting.

Scores of administrative problems - from shortage of ballot papers to locked polling stations - were reported around the country on a day of 'special voting' for the sick, elderly, handicapped, pregnant and imprisoned.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) last night refused appeals from the Inkatha Freedom Party, and less vehemently the ANC, for an extension of the two days of open voting which begin today. But the Commission may be forced to reconsider if the kind of confusion seen in many areas yesterday is repeated when the bulk of South Africa's 23 million voters try to go to the polls this morning.

The good news was that the voting, the first by all races in South African history, was relatively free of violence. Two trucks carrying unused ballot papers were set on fire near the east Rand township of Katlehong. But there was no continuation of the spate of 13 bombingswhich disfigured the previous two days.

Police shot dead a white man in the early hours of yesterday morning after he tried to tamper with evidence at the scene of an explosion in a Pretoria bar on Monday night in which two black people died. The Johannesburg Star reported that three people had been detained for questioning in connection with the bombings. Responsibility for the most serious of the attacks, at a taxi rank in Germiston, which killed 10 black people on Monday morning, has been claimed by the ultra-right Boere Bevrydingsbeweging (BBB). Police issued an identikit picture of a white man suspected of involvement in the Johannesburg car bombing on Sunday in which nine died.

At his final press conference of the election campaign, the ANC president, Nelson Mandela, appealed to voters of all races to ignore the violence. 'Standing together, let us send a message loud and clear: we will not let a handful of killers steal our democracy.'

Last night the greatest threat to the elections seemed to come from administrative foul-ups, caused partly by Inkatha's late entry into the campaign. There were angry scenes in Soweto and other Johannesburg area townships when polling stations did not open or ballot papers were not delivered on time. Some elderly people waited for up to seven hours to cast the first votes of their lives.

The worst problems were in KwaZulu-Natal, where polling stations were short of both ballot papers and the add-on stickers devised to include Inkatha when the party belatedly entered the election last week. There were reports of buses arriving at the wrong polling stations. Elsewhere, polling stations which were not supposed to open until today threw open their doors and long queues of ordinary voters formed prematurely outside.

The Inkatha spokesman, Ed Tillett, said: 'How can one hope to achieve fair election results? In vast areas (our) supporters cannot vote today.'