This country’s historic elections seemed doomed at 3:30 a.m. one day this week when a convoy of trucks carrying thousands of newly printed ballots stopped on the outskirts of this volatile black township to ask an army patrol for an escort.
The third and final day of the election, Thursday, was about to dawn. Many of the 16 polling stations in Thokoza had yet to see a ballot; tens of thousands of angry voters had been turned away. But the soldiers refused, saying they needed an order from their commanders in Pretoria.
Ken Weinberg, a retired U.S. Navy officer and logistics consultant for the Independent Electoral Commission, punched the number of the Defense Force command into his cellular telephone. The army major who answered said he wanted to help but his force was stretched too thin.
“Major,” Weinberg said, “I hate to be melodramatic here, but if you don’t want this area to burn tomorrow, you had better get me some troops right now.”
“Mr. Weinberg,” came the reply, “they’ll be there in 45 minutes.”
South Africa’s first democratic elections this week came close to collapsing when millions of voters flooded under-equipped and, in some cases, unequipped polling stations for the first full day of voting Wednesday. But it was rescued Thursday and Friday by the army, the air force and the remarkable work of almost 300,000 election workers, who, facing a seemingly impossible task, refused to give up.
“I’ll tell you, it was wild,” Weinberg said Friday after 54 hours without sleep. “People came to the polls that first day as if we were giving out free Hershey bars. We never expected so many.”
From the beginning, a host of problems faced election officials, who had just four months to launch a voter education drive, print ballots, hire poll workers, arrange security and draw up a plan to make the election work.
The original plan, election officials now acknowledge, was weak and full of misjudgments. But, when the Inkatha Freedom Party agreed to participate in the elections just a week before the voting was to begin, the plan began to fall apart.
Each of the 9,000 polling stations needed a host of materials, including invisible ink to mark voters’ hands, pencils, batteries, ultraviolet lamps, steel boxes, stamps, ink pads, and, of course, separate ballots for the national and provincial elections.
But, with Inkatha in the race, election officials now also needed an Inkatha sticker for each of the 80 million ballots and nearly 1,000 new polling stations in former no-go areas of Inkatha’s home base, KwaZulu.
Election officials had not ordered enough materials for extra polling places, and they were in trouble.
“We began robbing Peter to pay Paul,” admitted one official, who asked not to be named. At polling stations in urban areas, such as Thokoza, boxes of materials arrived, already opened and missing everything from batteries to ink pads. Some presiding officers in remote regions arrived at their polling stations to find no materials at all.
Although they had 80 million ballots, for an expected 21.7 million voters, the distribution system was inadequate (and now is the subject of a police investigation). That was complicated by the system that allowed South Africans to cast their ballots wherever they chose, resulting in long lines at some places and no lines at others.
The Inkatha stickers didn’t arrive at dozens, perhaps hundreds, of polling places. In some stations, voters were urged to write in the name of Inkatha if they wanted to vote for that party. At others, presiding officers wrote the name in themselves, at the bottom of the ballot, and hand-drew a square to hold the voters’ X.
Late Wednesday, with just one day of voting remaining, Inkatha President Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi was complaining loudly about the lack of stickers for his party and threatening to pull out of the elections. Almost every other party, including the African National Congress and President Frederik W. de Klerk’s National Party, the two most powerful, complained about ballot shortages.
Johann Kriegler--the election commission chairman, a judge and head of South Africa’s Lawyers for Human Rights--battled reporters’ questions before finally admitting serious inadequacies in the voting.
But, as the head of the panel empowered to declare the elections free and fair, he pleaded with South Africans not to expect a perfect election.
Inside the electoral commission headquarters the mood was gloomy.
“It’s a disaster, it’s a disaster,” moaned one young white election official. “We’ve failed.”
But others, believing that there was still time to salvage the election, stepped forward. “We can’t give up yet,” Weinberg remembered telling the election official. “We can make this work somehow.”
That launched a giant, mid-election effort to rescue the voting.
Dozens of printing companies across the country were called to print ballots, and their crews worked all night Wednesday to create more than 9 million new ballots, each with the Inkatha and party leader Buthelezi’s name at the bottom.
It was a rush job. When one printer complained that his workers had been on the job for 12 straight hours, a logistics officer appealed to his patriotism and prevailed. Informed by another printer that it would take an extra hour to bind the ballots and number them, Weinberg, who was fielding urgent requests from around the country for tens of thousands of ballots, told him not to bother.
Thousands of extra pens, ink pads and other items were also ordered. And in the early hours of Thursday, airplanes and trucks fanned out across the country to deliver the new materials and ballots. The South African air force, which dispatched 50 planes and helicopters to the remotest reaches of the country, called its mission Operation Jamba. It turned out to be the largest peacetime mission in the force’s history.
The election rescue succeeded in most of the country.
Bongi Msimang, a 37-year-old primary school principal and presiding officer at a voting station in Thokoza, had battled angry voters all day Wednesday when the ballots never arrived.
“Fortunately, I was able to control them by asking them to be patient,” she said.
Lacking a working phone, she had to rely on urgent messages delivered personally by her voting officers to the election commission headquarters.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “Even my superior didn’t know the truth.”
But at 4 a.m. Thursday, Msimang was awakened by a phone call at her Thokoza home. The ballots, escorted by soldiers, had arrived. “I’m confident everybody who wanted to vote got the chance,” she said Friday.
In Thokoza, and in large sections of the country, the election was saved. But it wasn’t enough in six former black homelands of South Africa, where voting had to be extended to Friday.
Ronald Gould, a Canadian hired as South Africa’s chief election officer, urged the country Friday to be patient with the vote count. He said officials at 700 counting stations would begin tabulating the vote early today and that it might take two or three days for the final results to be known.
“We’re not running a fast-food operation here, where we would have well-organized, well-provisioned franchises,” Gould explained. “We already have some known problems, and we will have some unknown problems.”
But the electoral commission, and the officials who worked night and day to make the election work, were relieved when every polling station finally closed its doors late Friday. They expected challenges to the election from various political parties. But they were confident that they would be able to call the exercise free and fair.