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View the documentThe South African elections; A European observer's eye-witness account

The South African elections; A European observer's eye-witness account

by Paule Bouvier.

On 6 December 1993. the European Union decided to set up a joint scheme to back the democratisation process begun in South Africa It also opted to send out 312 European observers for country-wide coverage of the national and provincial elections of April 1994. This signed the birth certificate of what was to be the European Union Election Unit in South Africa (EUNELSA) and gave me, and others, a chance to experience this turning point in south African history.

The mission began in Johannesburg. We spent the first couple of days on our special training, covering the nature, limitations and organisation of the mission, the institutional system which South Africa had created to manage transition and run the election - mainly the Transitional Executive Council (TEC), the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and the National Peace-Keeping Force (NPKF) - and the arrangements for the future ballot and the organisation of the police. We also visited a township and the European Delegation. This was a relatively passive phase in which we made contact and got a clearer idea of the observers' mission. But not only did we get to grips with the logistical problems of the enterprise, the first of its kind for the European Union. We also came to blows with the local delinquents, as several observers were robbed by one or other of the bands of young tearaways operating in the streets of downtown Johannesburg.

On the job

The next stage was to deploy the teams and thus found myself in the field, with three other colleagues (there were nine of us by the time tire mission came to an end).Some 50 km south of Johannesburg, at Vereeniging, which one of us handily christened 'glingling'. Our allotted territory (the Vaal and the western part of the East Rand) was southern PWV (Pretoria-Witwatersrand Vaal) Province, whose importance is inversely proportional to its size, since it houses about a fifth of the total population of South Africa and accounts for nearly 40% of GNP and 45% of the value added in manufacturing. The Vaal itself. with a population of around 1 280 000, is even more heavily industrialised (the secondary sector. mainly heavy industry, accounts for 58% of total production) and it is heavily urbanised as a result, with at least 800 000 people in the townships of Boipatong, sophelong, Evaton, Orange Farm, Ratenda,' Rust ter Vaal, Shalimar Ridge and Sharpeville The area has historical importance to match its economic importance, for it was at Vereeniging that peace was signed at the end of the Boer War But above all, this is where the blacks struck their first blows for freedom in the anti apartheid movement, which soon became a constant battle for liberation spreading out to the remotest parts of the country The list of victims, from the Sharpeville massacres of 1960 to the Bolpatong slayings of 1992, is long They fell on marches, during demonstrations and at funerals. They were the victims of disputes between hostels. rivalry between the ANC (African National congress) and the IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party), unauthorised action by the SDU (Self-Defence Units) or boycotting campaigns. Some were killed by local gangs like the one run by the notorious Monster of the Vaal. This is why the region was described as politically very active, anarchic (despite attempts to fill the gap left when the official structures seized up) and with an atmosphere of paranoia about it.

However, the general opinion seemed to be that the political scenery there had changed a lot over the previous two or three years, an opinion which we were able to confirm. With the exception of Sharpeville, where bands of delinquent youths are always on the prowl and selfdefence units always on the alert, other than for the unresolved problem of settling people who fled from Sebokeng after the troubles in 1990, the general climate is one of appeasement or even collaboration The shift apparently is due to the determination of leading politicians and the commitment of eminent civil servants and businesspeople, who realised the need for change, and to the liaison network set up by, inter alia, the LPC (Local Peace Committee). sob our mission began There were interviews, meetings and talks with polltical leaders Almost every day. there were floods of data on all the aspects of the local situation from local economic operators. We visited municipal authorities. provincial and regional administrative services, political parties, trade unions, civil associations, businesses, the police, the Local Peace committees, the headquarters of the independent electoral commission (open two weeks before the election), an agricultural cooperative, rural companies (a dairy and a ranch) and prisons and churches. Making contact was an easy and pleasant business, conversation was open and friendly and very often fascinating. Small farms were the only places we found it impossible to visit.

Whenever we could. we attended the rallies, meetings and forums set up by the ANC, the NP (National Party), the PAC (Panafricanist Congress of Azania), the FF (Freedom Front) and COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) and listened to such speakers as Nelson Mandela, Tokyo Sexwale, Clarence Makwetu, Benny Alexander, Frederik Willem de Klerk and Constand Viljoen. Their political messages were broadcast widely, but we were lucky enough to hear them live, and also to see how the atmosphere varied from one function to another. Some were exuberant. others less so, some were festive, others more formal, languages differed and audiences varied, as did degrees of police surveillance and numbers of observers etc., so no two events were alike Our job was simply to check that there was no intimidation from the competing parties or indeed from members of the audience There were no problems of this kind at functions held in our area.

We attended a whole series of meetings, in some cases as a scheduled part of the mission, and in others by invitation. We went to general and other assemblies of the LPC at Vereeniging and Heidelberg, we went to sessions of the Vaal Triangle Regional Service Council and to meetings of the Executive Council of the Ratanda Youth Forum, the Local Government Negotiating Forum for the Vaal Triangle (leading to the installation of the Vaal Metropolitan Negotiation Forum, hailed as a high spot in local history) and the IEC after the opening of its Vereeniging office and we attended the inauguration of the NP headquarters in Sebokeng. All this was of course an opportunity to make contact and establish relations, but it also gave us an insight into the problems, disagreements and tensions which the communities had to tackle and into all the effort which went into finding solutions, into the workings of local and regional structures and into the gradual design and establishment of the future institutions All this shed new light on the techniques used to bring the different sections of society together and neutralise or prevent disputes. The LPC, for example, built bridges, set up contacts between the various operators on the local political scene (parties, civic associations, trade unions. the police, the army, administrative services, the chamber of commerce, residents', students' and women's organisations etc.) and sought solutions to problems arising in the communities. The message was that, although there was no doubt that the Peace Committees needed to improve their methods. the important thing was that they existed and that many of them were efficient in one way or another. This major commitment at various levels was unique - unknown in other countries striving to move from war to peace and from an authoritarian regime to democratic government - and many people had responded to the challenge of making the Committees work

Disagreements can also be handled by a neutral mediator. The media had indeed spotlighted the international mission led by Henry Kissinger, invited to South Africa in mid-April to try to resolve the constitutional crisis between the IFP, the Government and the ANC, and, when this mission failed, all Professor Washington Okumu (of Kenya) did to break the stalemate. But the important thing is that the idea was used at local level too and we actually saw it applied in one dispute between employers and employees in the Transvaal Provincial Administration and another between two ANC and IFP youth groups.

One last feature of transition management was the many negotiating forums in various areas - 'one of the most singular and important phenomena in contemporary South Africa.'

Lastly, we followed the many training sessions for voters and LPC peace monitors fairly closely. The IEC and various other organisations (existing or set up for the purpose) were directly responcible for the voters' sessions, which were targeted on young people, students, workers, women, prisoners etc and on township populations more widely. At these sessigns, the importance and organisation of the ballot were explained and the voting process was demonstrated using a mock polling station in simulations which set out the roles of the various offices and described the procedures to be followed. The idea of the classes for peace monitors, run by the LPC, was, as already mentioned, to provide polling stations with teams of young men and women to head off any difficulties on polling day and it was up to us to see whether the teaching was both neutral and objective and in line with the aims and audience. In all these duties, we, as keen observers. reported to our regional coordinator, who then passed on the information to the Headquarters in Johannesburg. The job was also an opportunity to meet and work with our opposite numbers from the UN, the Commonwealth, the OAU. various churches. NGOs and others.

The election days

On the drama of the elections campaign and the contrasting peace of the polling, everything has already been said.

But it is worth emphasising two points. First, the extraordinary effort which went into the elections on every front. There was the specially created institutional framework, combining not just the EIC, already mentioned. but the IBA (independent Broadcasting Authority), the IMC (Independent Media Commission), the NPKF (National Peace-Keeping Force) and all the fringe organisations

Added to this were the human resources, the civil servants, judges, teachers, instructors, observers, clergymen, journalists, policemen and others, making up a formidable organisational network There were nine provincial electoral officers, 37 deputy officers, 1191 assistant officers, 2382 clerical staff, 9000 presiding officers, 193 706 voting officers and 90 838 tellers on the IEC staff alone.

And there were all the material facilities - more than 9000 polling stations, some of them supplied with telephones, power and so on only at the last minute There were thousands of ballot boxes and millions of ballot papers, not to mention such items as the IFP stickers and all the faxes sent over the election period. Things went wrong, there were irregularities and there was fraud, inevitably, and IEC leader Johann Johann made no secret of the fact, but do they not pale into insignificance beside a ballot which gave 20 million electors the opportunity to vote?

The second thing to highlight is the tremendous significance of the ballot There was heavy emphasis on the fact that this was the first multiracial, democratic vote which South Africa had ever seen - a symbol of the end of a regime and the establishment of new structures Rut it was more than that, for it took on the status of a defining event enshrining the birth of a new model of society; the decisive catalyst in a process which began in the 19805, was confirmed and accelerated when Frederik Willem de Klerk came to power against a backdrop of revolutionary struggle and was personified and galvanised by the charisma of the outstanding leader, Nelson Mandela. Thus ended what had become an increasingly intolerable anachronism, which was an outrage against its victims and anathema to black civilisations the world over and brought ostracism to its proponents. And the voters, urban and rural, experienced and inexperienced, educated and illiterate, old and young, male and female, able-bodied and handicapped, made no mistake about it, as was witnessed by the patience, self-discipline, determination and calm which they displayed during these memorable days - and in a country known for its exception ally high crime rate. Every visit to every polling station was another opportunity to see the sense of responsibility, general good nature and efficiency with which everyone went about their duties.

South Africa tomorrow?

As always in such circumstances, the period of grace will come to an end But will it have been long enough to take up the enormous challenges now facing the Government 7 That is the question. And the stakes are high. of that there is no doubt

The first challenge is national integration. There is of course a South African identity, much-claimed and proclaimed, but, as things stand, it is powerless to transcend a society riven by sociocultural, linguistic, territorial, economic and political separation. But paradoxically. this heterogeneity, exacerbated by discrimination, segregation, migration, emigration, the homelands policy and more, was both intensified by party politics during the electoral period and to some extent neutralised by the ever-present common denominator of the fight against apartheid. This fragmentation of the body social is reflected in all the political options and convictions now canvassed, from Stalinism and anarchic communism to pure capitalism, through the pipedream of a volkstaat to redistribution of land and other tools of production to blacks alone, from affirmative action to meritocracy. from the Koran to the bible and from federalism to centralism, through ecology and the defence of sport and art. Rarely has there been such a range of opinions. And it could get wider as exiles come home, new institutions bring new ideas and the last racial barriers come down.

On top of that, South Africa's currently depressed economy has to bear the enormous burden of the social heritage of apartheid and the enormous expectations which election promises have aroused. Although recent economic indicators suggest a relatively rosy future. It would be wrong to overlook the need to marshal vast resources and arbitrate between the virtually irreconcilable aims of modernising the nation's partly obsolete industry, mobilising domestic savings and foreign investment and meeting the most urgent housing, health, education, employment, welfare and other needs.

A third consideration is the transformation of the State apparatus, an exercise which is far from complete. The political edifice just erected at national and provincial level has still to be built at local level and the communities are expecting a lot of it. The organisation and standards of the current administrative structures have to be adjusted. A national army, including all existing corps, has to be set up. And the civic education work which started with the voters' education campaign has to be pursued, a public service ethic created throughout the civil service and a real democratic culture spread. The need to allow other forces to play their part comes into its own here, in a country not yet used to such practices. The fact that the English speaking press is still virtually in the hands of two groups, making it look as though power is in the hands of a small elite, has been highlighted, so the Government now has the new job of making sure that freedom of expression is not the privilege of a minority with the ability to make itself heard.

How will the Mandela Government handle these issues, which are fundamental to the future of South Africa? Can it resist the pressure of the population 7 Can it reconcile the irreconcilable? The future alone can tell.