Rarely has an election aroused such interest across the world, or been assisted by so many international observers and monitors: the 2,000 deployed by the United Nations come from more than 80 countries, with as many from an array of non-governmental organisations. Their presence reflects not merely a profound desire to help but the extraordinary role that South Africa has played in the political life of several generations.
For more than 40 years, along with the Cold War and the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours, South Africa remained at the top of the international agenda, seeing off decolonisation, the Vietnam war, the ending of fascist dictatorship in Spain and Portugal and other momentous but briefer chapters in 20th-century history.
South Africa was different in several ways. For a start, there was something uniquely brazen in the doctrine and practice of apartheid. Here was a minority white government that elevated racialism into an ideology, and codified it into laws. Worse regimes could and did exist elsewhere in the world. But nowhere else was racial prejudice against a black majority the guiding principle of government.
Furthermore, and exceptionally, liberals across the Western world felt there was something they could do to express their indignation. The Cold War induced a sense of helplessness: only by risking a nuclear holocaust did it seem possible to overthrow Communism. The Middle East conflict was full of moral ambiguities. The issues in South Africa were gloriously clear; and by boycotting its products and pressing Western governments to implement economic, cultural and sporting sanctions against its white government, ordinary people could show their disgust for apartheid and all its brutal injustices.
Governments, too, were keen to display their zeal: few international conferences took place without a clash over the severity of sanctions to be applied against the pariahs in Pretoria.
The anti-apartheid cause was embraced not just by youthful idealists but by those who identified the Nationalist Party with oppressive Western capitalism. This was a perversion of history, since the party had been founded in 1924 by J B M Hertzog to gain a more prominent role for the mainly rural Afrikaners in a society dominated by English-speakers. The Nationalists even fought the 1948 election (successfully) on a platform that included nationalising the mines, a slogan more recently adopted by the ANC, only to be abandoned again as the facts of business life were grasped. None the less, South Africa became a Cold War forum, not least when it joined the US in supporting Jonas Savimbi's rebels in Angola against the Cuban and East German- backed Marxist government.
Serious British involvement in South Africa goes back to the Napoleonic Wars, when the Cape was captured by a naval and military force in 1795. Relations with the Afrikaners, who had preceded them in the 17th century, were more or less permanently scarred by the Boer War of 1899-1902. British imperialism was seen as the common enemy both by the Afrikaners and the African National Congress when the latter was founded in 1912. Guilt over Britain's history as a colonial power, and its not very admirable role in South Africa, played its part in the anti-apartheid movement.
Ordinary Americans were not very interested in Africa, and Washington's policy elite initially saw South Africa as primarily a British domain. The late Richard Nixon, in his realistic way, viewed the Pretoria government as a bulwark against Communism, with a major strategic asset in its Simonstown naval base. It took the moral conscience of a president from the desegregated South, Jimmy Carter, and his black ambassador to the UN, Andrew Young, to shift US policy closer to the prevailing global abhorrence of apartheid. No doubt white guilt over slavery helped to shape the US economic sanctions that contributed to apartheid's demise.
The collapse of Communism played an important part in hastening that process, coupled with a worldwide recession in commodity prices and a record-breaking drought. No longer could the Nationalist government claim to be saving southern Africa from the Communist embrace. Suddenly South Africa's white tribe looked very lonely in a long-decolonised continent now left to solve its own problems. Economics, demographics and a profound sense of isolation all pointed to the same solution. In President F W de Klerk the country was lucky to have a leader with the courage and imagination to take the extraordinary gamble of releasing Nelson Mandela and so beginning the end of white minority rule; and in Mr Mandela himself a heroic figure capable of guiding and shaping the aspirations of the black majority.
The intensity of international interest in this week's polling is not diminished by the certainty of the outcome. Mr Mandela and his ANC are sure to gain overwhelmingly the largest share of votes. Their leaders know the dangers that lie ahead: many of them were exiled in neighbouring countries such as Zambia, where they could see almost every possible mistake being made. Making good so many years of institutionalised discrimination will be a long task, in its way far more arduous than the often heady struggle against apartheid.Reuse content