South African Elections: Mass turn-out for new era of democracy

VOTING in Africa is a serious business and South Africa is no exception. At polling stations throughout the country yesterday they queued in the hot autumn sun. Some had walked for miles and waited for hours. A few may have to try again today. One lady died of exhaustion.

When they came to the front of the queue the voters walked forward with intense seriousness to be led by election supervisers to the machine which screened their hand for invisible dye to check they had not already voted. Then they were given the two ballot forms, for the national and provincial elections, and shown to a little booth to make a cross on the paper - a simple act black Africans have wanted to do for 80 years.

At Tsineng in Northern Cape, queues snaked back from the polling station in a single block school to the road. Washington Thabiso, an election organiser, explained how on the first day they had been faced with many illiterate people, especially among the old. Some said they did not know how to make a cross and would ask for assistance to identify 'the old man'. Following the rules Mr Thabiso read out all the old men on the list.

Most of them wanted to vote for Nelson Mandela but sometimes they would ask for Lucas Mangope, the former president of Bophutatswana, the homeland which was forcibly reincorporated into South Africa in March. When told he was not standing they would ask for Mr de Klerk. What was clear, explained Mr Thabiso, was that they all knew exactly what they were doing and who they wanted to vote for.

At another polling station the presiding officer insisted on showing me around and witnessing the sealing of a filled ballot box with wax and stamp. A local headmaster, he chivvied his staff anxiously and constantly consulted his book of rules (He seemed to have missed the rule which forbids journalists to enter polling stations). All in all it was a very African election: ordered, patient and attended in huge numbers.

As in many other elections in Africa in the past four years a more than 100 per cent turnout was recorded in some places. Cynics might say that an election is an excuse for a day out but the high percentages and the solemnity suggests that elections are taken very seriously. From Eritrea to Namibia the election revolution has broken out and everywhere electoral officers have been overwhelmed by the number of people wanting to vote. Again South Africa is no exception.

Yesterday several polling stations in South Africa ran out of ballot papers or voting materials. For a government which supposedly kept tight controls over its people it was an extraordinary lapse. Either there are more black South Africans than anyone thought, especially in the rural areas, or the electoral commission and those that supplied it with figures, have schemed to deprive many people of the vote.

The latter interpretation is unlikely because the African National Congress and all other parties have been deeply involved in planning and approving the election procedures. The Independent Electoral Commission has impressed everyone with its impartiality.

The voter rolls' estimates were based on the last census and it now seems in many cases they were wildly out. At Gabopedi, Jeffrey Morotobolo, the presiding officer, complained that he had been issued with only 6,000 ballot papers. From the polling station the queue flowed down the hillside and across the valley. Mr Morotobolo said at least 6,000 would have voted by the end of the morning and more voters were arriving by the busload. The African population, and therefore the strength of the ANC majority, may be far greater than anyone guessed.

The problem in Africa has not been elections, it has been the gulf between an election and true democracy. It is a gulf many African countries have tumbled into recently. In Angola the election was carried out with hardly a hiccup but then Jonas Savimbi went back to war when he lost it. In Kenya President Daniel arap Moi reluctantly held an election which was imperfectly organised and widely manipulated. Mr Moi won it and then systematically undermined the spirit and the institutions of democracy. In Nigeria a reasonably well-organised election was annulled by the military rulers who did not like the result. Africans have been betrayed by their leaders. For many African leaders, elections are tolerable as long as they do not lead to democracy.

In this respect South Africa seems to have the reverse problem. The African National Congress has accepted a government of national unity and it is trying to include as many other political parties as possible. Its leadership proclaims the fairest liberal democratic principles imaginable and they appear to believe in them. It is further down the organisation that intolerance and absolutism exists. A similar split can be observed in the white community. Just how democratic are the people? If there is to be a spirit of tolerance in South Africa after the election it will have to come from the top down.

(Photograph omitted)