Cynicism routed by the voters

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IF THAT old reactionary Dr Johnson had been invited to comment on the South African elections he might well have compared them to a woman preaching: they were not done well but you are surprised to find them done at all.

I was not only impressed that the elections were done at all but, like most journalists reporting from South Africa, was moved by the dignity and the emotion of so many who cast their votes. We paid the price for our navety, excoriated in the columns of more cynical London-based colleagues. In the Daily Mail, for example, Geoffrey Wheatcroft described the BBC and ITN as 'the worst offenders' in treating the elections as 'a messianic religious experience'. Better, it seems, to boil babies for breakfast than for a hack to admit that something akin to a miracle happened in South Africa.

The journalistic species of cynicism is a tough old plant. It thrives in most environments and, like clover, creates its own fertiliser. The journalist who doubts that a particular policy will work or that a particular politician is worthy of his respect writes a sneering column or two and - hey presto] - more doubt is created. Then he writes about the doubt. Highly effective.

Journalists have an aversion to admitting that we sometimes get it wrong. We do, of course, but if we admit to it too frequently why should anyone bother to read us or listen to us? With most stories we have time to bail out if we've got it horribly wrong. I remember another big Southern African story: the Lancaster House conference on Rhodesia in 1979. Most of us predicted that it would last a few days and collapse in recriminations on all sides. Didn't Mugabe hate Nkomo and wasn't Lord Carrington hopelessly nave to think he could negotiate a deal between them and Ian Smith? In the event, the conference lasted nearly four months and ended in a settlement which led to peaceful elections and the stable (if not exactly problem- free) state of Zimbabwe. But as the situation developed, we were able constantly to nip and tuck, adjust our positions and modify our predictions. By the end we could say: 'Just what we expected. Only possible outcome, old boy.'

It wasn't like that with South Africa. Observers predicted murder and mayhem right up to the wire. If Buthelezi's private army wasn't going to wage war against ANC supporters in KwaZulu, crazed rightwingers were going to gun down black voters as they stood in line. So convinced was the Sunday Times that it demanded the elections be postponed and the notion of all races joining in a government of national unity abandoned as a preposterous dream. Ho hum. Get out of that, if you can.

But that doesn't explain why most of us who were there ended up, after that first day of voting, feeling like St Paul by the time he checked in at Damascus. My own journey took me no further than Soweto, 20 minutes and a few centuries from downtown Johannesburg. My cynicism survived the sight of a handful of voters waiting at dawn outside the Church of the Resurrection in Zone Seven. True, it was surprising that there was anyone there at all at that ungodly hour. The Highveld is cold in autumn before the sun has come up, especially if you're very old. But there were only half a dozen of them and they all wanted to be the first to vote.

Just something to boast about in the shebeen that night?

My cynicism wavered when I spoke to the first woman in the queue. She'd already been there for two hours. She was so excited at the prospect of voting that she hadn't been able to sleep.

The second in line gave me another bolt. He told me he was 95, and he looked it. He was sitting on a low stone wall, bent double in his Sunday best, one bony hand wrapped around the handle of his walking stick and the other clutching his dompas (pass book), that most hated symbol of apartheid. If you were black you carried it everywhere. It told the police which area you were allowed to set foot in and work in - which area of your own country.

Now the old man was using it as proof of his identity to claim his vote: his first in 95 years. 'My life is over,' he told me, 'but I have many children and grandchildren and I am voting for them.'

The next was a young woman, heavily pregnant. 'I am voting twice,' she said, 'for me and for the baby in my womb. Because of this he may be president one day.'

By the time the sun had come up it was impossible to see one end of the queue from the other, and these were only the very old, the infirm and the pregnant. They waited for hours as the sun grew hot, on home-made crutches and canes, in wheelchairs and kitchen chairs brought by younger relatives. They would wait for as long as it took. All day if needs be.

Perhaps a trace of cynicism - scepticism by now - remained. Surely when the young bloods turned out to vote tomorrow they'd grow impatient with the waiting and give up or make trouble. They did neither; they waited too. And could the white madam really stand in line with her black servant? She could and she did.

So, pretty stony ground for cynicism there. But wait. Did we nave hacks not realise, asked the London-bound cynics, that terrible problems lie in the path of the so- called 'new' South Africa? Well yes, as a matter of fact, we did and we do. But will somebody tell me the alternative.

To have kept Mandela in jail, stuck with apartheid and counted the dead when the supermarket bombs went off in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg every other Saturday morning? Or to have tut-tutted while blacks butchered each other with increasing ferocity, some armed by the ANC, others by the security forces?

Not wholly desirable, I would have thought. Mark you, that would have preserved the myth - so comforting in some quarters - that only white men can run governments. Or is that too cynical?

The writer covered the South African elections for the BBC.

(Photograph omitted)