Despite widespread fears of polling violence, this nation’s first all-race elections for a post-apartheid government drew to a close Friday amid an atmosphere of calm and initial assessments by political leaders that the long-awaited balloting was substantially free and fair.
Reports from the six remote tribal homelands where polling had been extended an extra day were similar to those here in the former so-called homeland of Lebowa--a massive turnout of first-time black voters, scattered cases of ballots arriving late and a weary sense of satisfaction that the historic week was finally over.
“It’s all quiet,” said Nikki Moore, spokeswoman for the Independent Electoral Commission, the Johannesburg-based nonpartisan group that has run the elections and must determine the validity of the outcome. “No violence, no conflict, no intimidation, no irregularities that we know of.”
In this rural township, about 150 miles north of Johannesburg, local elections supervisor Edwin Nyatlo finally relaxed as the last locked ballot boxes were loaded onto a bus and carted off by armed soldiers for storage overnight.
“I think for the majority of people, it was a victory just to vote,” he said. “Whatever happens afterward, it was a victory. Even if the government-in-waiting does not deliver the goods, they’re happy.”
Inside the community hall, high school student Martha Maki, 19, sat with a dozen other young women awaiting instructions for when counting starts this morning. She didn’t know the salary, she said, and didn’t care. She had come “just to help the people,” she said shyly.
Counting starts at 7 a.m. at about 650 sites across the country, with the first unofficial, raw results available by about noon.
The official winners of the national and provincial races won’t be announced before midnight Sunday, Moore said.
The first Parliament elected by the black majority is scheduled to convene May 6 in Cape Town to choose the new president. The inauguration will be May 10 in Pretoria.
Nelson Mandela, who is almost certain to be the first black president, and Frederik W. de Klerk, who may be the last white president, said they were satisfied that the election had been free and fair.
In a nationally televised interview, Mandela complained of administrative foul-ups in distribution of voting materials to numerous polling stations, especially in black areas, but said he believed that the voting overall had not been corrupted.
“I am confident we will be able to pronounce these elections fair and free,” Mandela said, in marked contrast to his charge Thursday that “massive sabotage” had taken place to discourage voting in black areas.
De Klerk, who has said he is prepared to become executive vice president under Mandela, also was upbeat.
“I am confident that we will get good adjudication, and at the end of the day that these elections and results will be announced free and fair,” he told reporters.
Judge Johann Kriegler, chairman of the electoral commission, had a similar view. Asked by reporters if he believed that the election seemed free and fair, he replied: “So far, there is no reason to say it hasn’t.”
Their positive assessment and moral blessing will be crucial for a smooth start of the world’s newest democracy after four bitter decades of apartheid and a four-year bloody transition to legal equality and guaranteed freedoms for the long-oppressed black majority.
Voting began Tuesday after a wave of bombings that left 21 people dead. Police later arrested 33 right-wing whites in a crack-down on the white-supremacist groups that had threatened to disrupt the elections rather than submit to black majority rule.
The police also moved to avert any further trouble from extremists by declaring 15 towns west and southwest of Johannesburg “unrest areas.” That gives police expanded powers to detain people and break up public gatherings in the rural towns, all strongholds of the pro-apartheid groups.
“We did this to prevent conflict and violence in the area,” police Capt. Koos Degenaar said.
The logistic problems that kept voters waiting hours for ballots Tuesday and Wednesday were largely overcome Thursday after millions of extra ballots were printed and the military was ordered to help distribute them.
But polling stations were kept open Friday in the remote former homelands of KwaZulu, Venda, Transkei, Ciskei, Lebowa and Gazankulu because of widespread delays and mix-ups in the distribution of ballots and other voting materials earlier in the week by officials unused to mass voting.
Air force planes and helicopters delivered ballots to polling stations that had never opened in several areas; trucks and buses were commandeered to ferry rural voters down from the mountains. In some cases, according to local press reports, runners were sent out to spread word of the last day of voting.
Here in the distant reaches of Lebowa--one of the desolate, reservation-like homelands set up under apartheid as dumping grounds for blacks--officials complained that scores of voting stations never opened Tuesday, and operated only sporadically Wednesday and Thursday.
Nyatlo ran a “mobile voting station,” a roving minivan filled with voting materials that stopped in five impoverished villages scattered over 35 dusty miles of brooding sandstone buttes, crenelated hills and parched green cornfields.
Voters came from everywhere, said Nyatlo, a lecturer at the local teachers’ college. “Even some people who couldn’t walk, they were carried in wheelbarrows.”
One reason was to celebrate the end of the homeland--and of the local officials who had enticed voters in bogus local elections with “liquor and a bribe.” All the homelands were officially reincorporated into South Africa under the interim constitution that took effect Wednesday.
Nyatlo finished up his election circuit-riding just before sunset in this dusty black township, outside the white farming town of Potgietersrus. Only 41 people voted here on the last day, but Nyatlo said he was confident most local residents already had voted.
“It was quite an experience,” he said with a grin. “We enjoyed it, but it was very, very, very tiring.”