Behind the Headlines

Election Notes From a Nation in Transition

South Africa's general elections began yesterday after a long, bumpy ride. The next few days should bring about a democratic "government of national unity"--if we can keep levels of violence down, that is.

On the eve of the elections, the Pretoria/Witwatersrand/Vereeniging region has been racked by bomb blasts aimed mainly at polling stations. Two particularly bad attacks (one near the headquarters of the African National Congress (ANC), the other at a taxi stand) have left 20 dead--at last count--and hundreds wounded.

Both incidents involved over 90 kilograms of explosives. The message, of course, is loud and clear: certain segments of the South African community (probably right-wing whites) do not want these elections to take place. The largest reward in South African history has been offered for information leading to prosecution.

Money seems to be quite an incentive around here these days, not only as a reward, but also as a deterrent. Hefty fines are imposed on those found guilty of intimidation or misinformation.

In order to vote, voters are required to have their knuckles marked with an invisible ink, detectable only under ultraviolet light. Election officials check knuckles to ensure that no one votes more than once-a quick make-shift alternative to voter registration.

General Bantu Holomisa, an erstwhile homeland leader, has earned the ANC another large fine by alleging that "porridge" and "meat" served by the National Party were full of invisible ink. Evidently, the ink would work its way through the body to the knuckles, denying voters access to the polls as it would appear as if they had already voted.

Similar types of disinformation have occurred in other elections. International observers reported that in Ethiopia's elections, some people believed that dwarves were hiding in the ballot boxes to steal votes.

In Cambodia, voters had a finger dipped in invisible ink and were told to hold it up in the air until dry.. Apparently, three days later people were seen still with their fingers held aloft. similar behavior here could have meant death to a rural peasant in Zululand, although perhaps not now that Inkatha is finally in on the election process.

Other urban myths abound. Nicholas Gordon '95, who is based in Durban on the coast, told me of a woman at a public meeting who asked whether the ANC would really take over her house after the elections. Apparently, a man had knocked at her door, asked for a glass of water, and returned it with a R2 coin at the bottom "as down payment for your house!"

Supermarket shelves emptied last week as South Africans stocked up, expecting the worst. When Lucas Mangope was ousted from Bophuthatswana last month widespread looting occurred, prompting a Pan Africanist Congress representative to make the sage remark: "We are merely taking back from whites what they took from us."

The result? Stockpiling and the coining of a new term: "affirmative shopping."

The next few days will be hard work for all of those helping to run the elections, but the greatest challenge will come after the voting is completed. Expectations have been raised and promises made that cannot possibly be met in the short run.

But the new government can and will begin that long term process of renewal. Hopefully, no South African citizen at this point in our history, having invested so much into this struggle for equality, will do anything but push for a free and fair society where our value as people is determined by more than just the color of our skin.