South African Elections: Thrill of driving down the democratic road: Rich Mkhondo of Reuters, a black South African journalist, describes the excitement of casting his first vote after reporting a decade of change

KATLEHONG - Voting in my township began with whistles by men, ululations by women and a three-and-half-hour wait to end apartheid and usher in democracy. As a 38-year-old black South African I had never until today had any voice in the affairs of my country.

I woke at 5am to be in the front seat of history. It was like getting ready for baptism as a new congregation member. Hours later, tense and excited while inscribing a long- denied 'X' on the ballot-paper, it was like a heady first romance. It ended what once seemed an impossible journey, against the overwelming odds of white-enforced institutional racism, violence and lengthy negotiations for an interim constitution.

My dignity and self-worth had finally been restored. I am keeping my political choice secret. My vote signalled the end of white rule and gave me a chance to determine how I will be governed and by whom.

For four years unelected leaders laboured over our new constitution. Now it is my turn to have a say. What made the occasion more interesting was that I only picked my party a few minutes before I made my cross. Having reported on South Africa's transition to democracy, I had to deal with all the parties, large and small. That made it difficult to select a party one could vote for.

For many years, the sound of whistling at night in this battle- scarred township and neighbouring Thokoza was a signal for men to assemble to protect their families against impending attacks by marauders. Ululations by women were heard at weddings and other celebrations. Ululations had also been used to cheer men leaving to repel attacks by political rivals. This time, however, the ululations and whistling were calling on everyone to go and vote against apartheid. And for peace and prosperity in our townships.

Violence in Katlehong and Thokoza has accounted for more than half of the 5,500 people killed in political clashes during the past two years.

The whistling and ulalations stopped a few miles away from the polling station when officials warned that singing and shouting of party slogans were barred.

By 7am the queue was 1.5 miles long, with still more people joining it. More than three hours later, the length of the queue had doubled when news of a bomb explosion at Jan Smuts international airport reached us. Despite the scare, many in the queue were prepared to wait for the arrival of voting materials. We were not going to be detracted by a lunatic fringe in our quest for democracy.

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