South African Elections: Old oppressors find a welcome in enemy's lair

PIK BOTHA, who has served as foreign minister in three successive apartheid governments, jumped to the front of a half-mile queue and cast his vote yesterday in Soweto's Orlando West, the symbolic heart of black South Africa's liberation struggle.

Mr Botha, 62, was the only white man who voted at Orlando's Holy Cross Anglican Church, emptied of pews for the two days of polling and transformed into a temple of earthly redemption.

The great survivor - there's talk he might preserve his portfolio under Nelson Mandela - stepped out of a silver Mercedes Benz and waited for the press to engulf him. 'My feelings,' he said, 'are that for the first time we are participating in an election that will have legitimacy. Now we can go to the polling booth without a bad conscience.'

Mr Botha became foreign minister in 1977, a year after the Soweto uprising, the event that sparked new life into a liberation movement that had lain dormant since the jailing of Mr Mandela in 1964.

Orlando West was where it all began. It was here, the neighbourhood where the Mandela and the Sisulus had their homes, that the schoolchildren gathered to launch their rebellion. It was here that the police first opened fire and the first victim, Hector Petersen, fell.

But that was history. There was no ill-feeling towards Mr Botha. One lady near the front of the queue remarked that it was a good thing he had come to Soweto. 'It shows you that the world is changing.' Nor was there any ill-feeling towards Roelf Meyer, the Minister of Constitutional Development, and, the last to arrive of the National Party troika, F W de Klerk. Mr Meyer said he was delighted to be out in the sun away from the musty negotiating chamber.

Although Soweto was the enemy's lair - the local ANC organiser said he had no doubts as to which party was going to clean up this particular corner of South Africa - Mr de Klerk did not come across as a man consumed by worry.

Nor did he need to be. One woman, spotting his distinctive bald pate through the inevitable reporters' scrum, shrieked: 'I love you] I love you] I love you]' The same woman, approached a moment later by a journalist to see if she was going to vote for Mr de Klerk, replied, simply: 'No.'

One of Mr de Klerk's aides, fearing a wasted trip, sought out a South African state television crew. One having been found, the soundbites flew. Then South Africa's last white president - until 1999 at any rate - stepped back into his car and waved to the crowd. Most did not even know he was there, but a small group heckled him out of the church gate.

But they were chuckling, not hissing. The time for hating had passed. They weren't really resentful that De Klerk had come, were they? 'No, man, No]' said their cheerleader, a young woman wearing a gold necklace and black leather boots. 'No problem. We're happy, really. We're just teasing.'

A man came up to a group of European election observers and said, solemn-faced, 'Look, guys, I'm not intimidating you, but . . .' his face suddenly broke out into a huge grin, 'Vote Mandela]' The observers grinned back as the man ran off to join the voting line with a wave and a 'Bye, guys]'

For all the high spirits, it was going to be a long day. Across the road from the church queues tailed back from the entrance to Uncle Tom's Hall. Here were the people who had failed to get their ID documents in time hoping to obtain a temporary voting card. Three women stood chattering at the back of one of the queues. Didn't they feel tempted to leave the voting for next time? 'What? Not vote? We've waited all our lives for this.'

'We're not going to worry if we have to wait two days more.'

'We're not queuing. We're flying. It's a blessed today.'