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The Elections From the Inside

By Nichola Buekes

It's one thing to be trained (rather haphazardly) by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), and quite another to find yourself confronted by 500 angry voters threatening to hold you hostage until more ballot papers arrive! Ah yes, the trials and tribulations of an election monitor...but let me start at the beginning.

The IEC is an independent commission created by the Transitional Executive Council, which has been running the country over the past few months, with the express purpose of organizing and running South Africa's elections--an almost impossible task, I might add. My first impression of the monitoring division at the IEC was one of extreme chaos. The entire floor of the building had almost no wall partitions, so desks were dotted around like islands in a storm. Hundreds of people milling about aimlessly seemed to have nothing better to do than talk at the top of their lungs--the noise was unbelievable. Later, that third floor became my home away from home.

Monitoring in the run up to the elections involved attending mass political rallies and debates and ensuring that the process was correct, no intimidation took place and that party officials were not misinforming their constituents. In the event of a crisis, monitors were expected to leap into the fray and mediate. Only once did I have to do this, when members of the organizing party at a rally got a little hot under the collar at an opposition party which was distributing their party pamphlets within the meeting. In this case, once people had calmed down a little, apologies were given and accepted. Other monitors did not have it so lucky. Some were run out of meetings, or beaten. In Natal/Kwazulu, an IEC monitor was assassinated after success in bringing about dialogue between armed factions in the community. At that point Inkatha was not yet in on the election process and I have my own suspicions about the motivations for his death.

By the time this is printed, the election results may already be out, and I'm sure the press there has been covering the process, so I won't discuss the boring details but instead will share what it was actually like in Johannesburg at the time of the voting.

The first day of the elections was a special voting day for those in hospitals, old age homes and prisons. As a monitor, I was assigned to a mobile voting station which took ballot papers, ballot boxes and cardboard ballot booths to voters in their hospital beds. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

One couple, whose newborn baby had died in the night, voted as they wept together. We scrubbed up and took ballot papers to a woman on the operating table having a caeserian section. We stood by as voters straight from operations, from giving birth to babies, from sitting beside deathbeds, voted because it mattered and was real to them.

Who would have thought that most South Africans would pick the very first day of elections open to the whole population to vote? I don't think the IEC was prepared for the vast numbers of people who turned out to vote that Wednesday. The voting station at which I was deployed expected less than 3,000 voters over both days, yet in fact nearly 5,000 votes were cast that first day alone. At 7:15 p.m. we ran out of ballot papers. Since the polling stations had originally been scheduled to close at 7 p.m., the voters waiting outside refused to believe we had actually run out. It was too much of a coincidence. We must have selfishly hidden the papers so that we could go home. Hence the many very angry voters outside. The presiding officer and I went out to talk to the crowd, taking the political party agents with us and diffused things by allowing one person to come in to phone the IEC headquarters on behalf of the others, and then handing out letters giving them permission to come in any time the next day.

Overnight millions of ballot papers were printed, but an hour before opening, none had arrived at our station. So there we were at 6:30 in the morning walking down the kilometer-long queue which had already formed asking very patient voters to be even more patient. By the end of that second day the election officers had the voting procedure down to a fine art with an average of 100 people through every ten minutes. I spent most of my time doing voter education, assisting sightimpaired voters, explaining the difference between the national and provincial ballots and keeping tabs on the ballot boxes out of the corner of my eye.

I am confident that the election process that I saw was free and fair. I am not so sure about the rest of the country. Natal/KwaZulu was particularly plagued by problems--polling stations opened late or not at all. Ballot boxes were not properly sealed. Ballot papers did not arrive.

Yet there were many bright signs among the problems. In some parts of the country people queued for three days to vote. The patience of voters was outstanding and for the first time in as long as I can remember, nobody was killed in political violence.

There were distinct problems with the organization of the election, but I think the IEC should be commended for what it achieved. What is important now is that a permanent body be instituted to plan our next democratic election in 1999. A body which will draw up a successful plan, train the necessary people and check the procedure with a fine-tooth comb so that the disastrous logistical errors which occurred this time around, cannot happen again.

Voter education must start now--in the workplace, at schools, in other public venues and particularly among the rural community in order that people may know their vote is secret and does make a difference in the governing of the country.

Assisting with the elections over the past weeks has been an absolutely incredible experience. People prayed, wept, sang and danced as they voted and I feel honoured that I could take part in that experience.

The last week in April gave back dignity to so many South Africans and is the first step towards ending the lifelong struggle for equality which so many have fought for. I need matchsticks to prop my eyelids open, and my feet hurt so badly that I hope I don't have to stand again in a long time, but it's a small price to pay for being a part of this joyously democratic occasion.

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