WORLD

Witness to history

May 9 1994
WORLD

Witness to history

May 9 1994

Witness to history

WORLD

Nancy Gordon, a communications director at Care Canada in Ottawa, was one of about 2,000 international observers monitoring last week’s elections in South Africa. She was stationed in the Harrismith and QwaQwa districts of the Orange Free State, where she kept a daily diary. Excerpts:

April 26: “I waited for years— what is an hour?” an old black man says as he stands in line at a special voting station, set up to allow the elderly, infirm and disabled to cast their ballots. That resigned patience, along with a quiet dignity and controlled happiness, characterize the first day of voting.

The lines are long, the sun is hot and some of the voting stations are not as efficiently organized as they will become. But the old people come and wait their turn, some leaning heavily on walking sticks, a few having to be carried. Many need help voting because they are illiterate. The presiding officers patiently assist them in the presence of monitors from the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), party agents and, sometimes, international observers. Several times I hear the officer read out the long list of parties and leaders, watch the voter listen intently until the officer comes to the name

“Mandela,” see the voter nod his or her head and say aloud, “Mandela,” slowly, and with a smile.

April 27: At 7 a.m., South African television shows Nelson Mandela casting his ballot in Natal—a very moving occasion.

I think of watching him on TV in my Ottawa living room four years ago as he emerged from 27 years in prison. The pace of change is both incredibly fast and agonizingly slow.

Long queues form early as the first day of regular voting begins. The lines, however, are orderly, and people smile shyly at foreign observers. Many come in their finery. At Mont Pelaan, a rural community, a young woman dressed in a white lace dress is denied the opportunity to vote because she will not tum 18 until September. At Verkykerskop, an agricultural district, white farmers have transported their black laborers to the voting station in large

trucks. Thirty such vehicles line the gravel road at noon.

The wait is five hours. No white voters are in the lines. I wonder why, until someone explains that whites tend to have cars and, seeing a long line, simply drive elsewhere to vote. Tomorrow is declared another paid public holiday to accommodate the high turnout.

April 28: Rumors abound on early morning television that voting may be extended by yet another day because of logistical problems. Our little group assembles at breakfast and wonders what all this means. Here there have been long lines, but no shortages of ballots.

We go first to the voting station at Aberfeldy, another agricultural region. There is no lineup, and we are greeted warmly by the presiding officer. He tells us that yesterday a woman went into labor while waiting in line; an ambulance was summoned and she gave birth in hospital. She didn’t vote in Aberfeldy, but the papers carry stories of two new mothers who voted within hours of delivering their babies.

We spend the afternoon at voting stations in QwaQwa, one of the former homelands, a densely populated, mountainous, rocky area. There are over

70 voting stations here. My companions say that all were packed with people yesterday, but today none has anything resembling a crowd.

During lunch at the Fika Patso mountain resort, a luxurious retreat for nature lovers and hikers, we run into two observers from the United Nations and European Community. The latter, from Belgium, is so impressed with the scenery that he walks through a plate glass window, smashing it to smithereens.

‘Tired, satisfied and slightly bored,” is how one British observer characterizes electoral officials today. This is in marked contrast to yesterday, when most were rushed off their feet. Returning to our hotel at sundown, we hear that voting will be extended another day in sections of the country where problems persist.

On Saturday the count will begin, a process that may prove time-consuming and unwieldy. But this first, great experiment in democracy in South Africa is off to a promising beginning, at least in the southeastern comer of the Orange Free State. I feel privileged to have had a small part in the process, and humbled by the seriousness and joy which South Africans have demonstrated during it.