The counting of ballots got under way in Durban yesterday afternoon after Inkatha and the ANC traded charges of having set up pirate voting stations and a dispute arose as to who had been hired to carry out the vote tally. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) had employed extra counters after some of those originally contracted failed to show.
Counting had to be moved from Ulundi, capital of the old KwaZulu 'homeland', because ANC party agents feared for their lives, to Nongoma, site of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini's palace. The weekend before the poll Inkatha supporters murdered three ANC campaigners.
The IEC deputy chairman, Dikgang Moseneke, described the dispute over 'pirate' voting stations as serious and said a commission team was investigating the matter. Ballot boxes from those stations would be counted separately, he said.
So will those ballots cast on Friday, which became an unscheduled fourth day of polls in six regions, including Natal, after IEC administrative chaos meant not enough ballots and voting materials were delivered to more remote voting stations on time.
After the Western Cape, where the ruling National Party appeared to be winning, Natal was the only province where an ANC majority in the provincial assembly was under threat. Early returns yesterday gave Inkatha a big lead, but none had come in from urban areas, such as Durban and Pietermaritzburg, where the ANC's following is greatest.
The battle for the populous province, where one in five South Africans live, was primarily between the mainly Zulu Inkatha and the ANC, although the National Party was expected to do well, especially among the white, Indian and mixed-race communities.
ANC-IFP clashes have claimed the lives of 10,000 people in the past decade, and at least 300 have died since President F W de Klerk imposed a state of emergency on the province and sent in the South African Defence Force.
The poor organisation of the polls and allegations of vote rigging and intimidation would give either side ample ammunition to bolster their claims should they decide not to accept the results.
Chief Buthelezi has repeatedly said he would abide by the results of the election, even if Inkatha lost, but has also questioned whether the poll was free and fair. He, like his ANC rivals, has levelled charges of intimidation, stuffing of ballot boxes, and other 'gross irregularities'.
In KwaZulu, the former self- governing 'homeland' run by Chief Buthelezi, many IEC regulations were openly flouted. Despite an agreement that the army and the South African police would be present at all voting stations, in many security was left to the KwaZulu 'homeland police', considered by many people to be the armed wing of Inkatha.
The majority of IEC officers and presiding officers at voting stations in the KwaZulu heartland were Inkatha or KwaZulu government officials. It was they who helped illiterate voters fill out their ballots and saw to sealing the ballot boxes as the polls closed on Friday. Throughout the Mahlabatini region around Ulundi, there were no polling agents from other parties.
In Paulpietersburg, northern Natal, ANC officials said Inkatha activists had chased their party agents out of 18 of 26 voting stations. 'If it is a free and fair vote, then those votes, even the ones for the ANC, are in question,' said Isaiah Natshangase, an ANC Youth League activist who monitored the polls there.
'But we think that at the end of the day, it was a good effort, good enough to be called free and fair.' Mr Natshangase said. 'We just hope all the parties agree to accept them. There is no alternative to these elections.'
Inkatha officials have made similar charges of initimidation and cheating against the ANC. The long delays in the arrival of voting materials, especially ballots and indelible ink, discouraged people who had to wait for hours, sometimes days, to vote.
They also allege that up to 250,000 people were bused in from the neighbouring former 'homeland' of Transkei to swing the vote in favour of the ANC.