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South Africa – An Observer’s View

As the whole world remembers Nelson Mandela, and his incredible contribution to justice and freedom in South Africa, we reproduce an article written by Eilish Dillon in 1994 just days after the election of Mandela as President.

South Africa – An Observer’s View

by Eilish Dillon
Published in The Avondhu Newspaper, Thursday May 19th, 1994

Douglas Fanda

Douglas Fanda, ANC Supporter at the Nelson Mandela ANC Rally held in Aliwal North, April 18th 1994.

The first ever democratic elections are over and Nelson Mandela has finally been elected the first black President of South Africa. Two months ago, it didn’t seem quite possible, and yet the world watched emotionally as the former Robben Island prisoner was sworn into office on the 10th May.

The funeral of Apartheid was met with delight and relief as dignitaries sang and danced in the sun. Mandela, a powerful symbol of liberation, spoke of the bright future ahead: Justice, Equality, Employment, Education and Housing. A tall order in this country of contrasts, but one to which this new government has firmly committed itself.

I visited South Africa for 5 days in 1991. Nelson Mandela was not long out of prison and negotiations were just underway there for a change in government following the abolition of many of the Apartheid laws a month earlier. Even then, the emerging changes were indicating freedom, and an end to the tragic history of South Africa. I could never have guessed that I would have an opportunity to return just three years later to witness the first ever democratic elections to be held in South Africa.

In late February, as a member of Comhlámh, I was asked by APSO, the government sponsored sending agency, if I would be available to go to South Africa as an International Observer. I could hardly contain my excitment at the prospect.

Two weeks later, I found myself landed, with 13 other Irish observers, in a small town in the North Eastern Cape region of South Africa. It’s difficult to find Venterstad on a map of South Africa. A small rural town, it boasts of having 3 shops, a hotel and many churches. The town centre belies its true population. 7,000 people live on the outskirts of town, in small, box houses with few of the modern comforts one might expect in a country so rich in natural resources. There’s little evidence of South Africa’s gold, silver and diamonds in Lyciumville and Nosizwe, the two townships attached to Venterstad. With black South Africans in one and so-called ‘coloureds’ in the other, the town is still divided on racial lines. In South Africa, it still seems that the ‘blacker you are’ the ‘poorer you are’. In one part of Nosizwe, for example, 100 temporary galvanised shacks signal the need for development in the area. With 1 tap and 6 toilets, this area is appropriately called ‘Far Enough’ in Xhosa.

Apartheid went far enough and its legacy is obvious. As we met people in the town they told us about the past and their hope for South Africa’s future. We spoke to people who were imprisoned because they were looking for the right to vote. They saw the election as a victory for their years of struggle against the injustices of Apartheid. We met people who were put out of their homes, off their land and into townships in the 1950s. They spoke of the days when they had to enter the postoffice, bank and doctor’s surgery by the back door, just because they were not quite ‘white’ enough. They were not yet the right colour to feel comfortable in the only pub in town. There are no’ whites only’ signs there now, but differentiation is signalled by the words ‘Private Bar’ and ‘Public Bar’. The challenges for the new ANC led government are enormous, but most of the people we met – black and white – look forward to the ‘New South Africa’ with hope and an understanding of the need for reconciliation.

I was one of 5,000 or so international observers in South Africa for the elections. There as independent outsiders, it was very important for us to be seen to be neutral’. With a clear sense of what had happened in the past and being able to see the terrible poverty in which many people still lived, we tried to remain neutral. I was very conscious of the need to keep an open mind, aware that any expression of opinion by an observer could put the freedom of the election in jeopardy. But it was hard.

Our role as observers was to familiarise ourselves with the political developments in our assigned electoral districts and to report any irregularities to the Independent Electoral Commission, the organisation running the election. I worked with Sean O’Breasail, another observer from Comhlámh in Cork. We were told that we were there to be of assistance. South Africans were to be employed at all levels of the organisation of the election: presiding officers, electoral officers, counting officers, voting trainers, monitors etc. Our role was to observe the processes surrounding the election process and to see if the Electoral Act was being followed in a tolerant and peaceful manner. Much of our time was spent ensuring that those in positions of authority, mostly white South Africans in our region, were employing people of all ethnicities and both male and female in the polling stations. In Venterstad, Steynsburg and Hofmeyr, the three electoral districts in which we worked, our job was made very easy by the relative lack of violence or intimidation for most of the run-up to the elections. While many of the white South African community involved in the election processes seemed to be very racist by our standards, they also made an obvious effort to overcome their fears and prejudices.

Community leaders from all sides worked together on the local peace committees and transitional Local Fora (the new Urban District Councils). I was amazed at the way in which meetings were conducted in a friendly and positive manner, dispite disagreements. There was no evidence of hatred on the part of those who have been forgotten in the past, and a real sense of the need to look to their common future without fear. While the community leaders met at a formal level, many others were being trained to cast their first vote.

Voter Education meetings were packed. Conducted in poorly equipped halls or in farm sheds, people came from miles around in their enthusiasm to learn how to vote. They were instructed by local South Africans, especially trained under the Independent Forum for Electoral Education. Our role as international observers was to ensure that the education was open, portraying different sides fairly, and that every effort was being made to reach as many people as possible. I was really impressed by the standard of training. In a country with a 50% literarcy rate, it had to be clear and practical. Mock elections were being held in the most unusual and remote of places and, with a few colourful posters and a bundle of sample papers, the trainers used their ingenuity to teach people how to make their mark. A simple cross in a box. This was sometimes hard to achieve, with elderly people often having difficulty holding the pen straight on the paper. They would search for the face of the party leader (usually Mandela) or the bright party symbol, especially added to the ballot paper to make it easier for people to vote. In the end, less than 1% of the ballot papers were spoiled in our region, a testament to the efforts made in the run up to the election to ensure that everyone would be able to vote.

Venterstad, Steynsburg and Hofmeyr were like many similar towns and cities in South Africa in the weeks before the election. IEveryone was talking about the election. Local members of the ANC looked forward to the imminent change, and spoke of ‘the great day’ which lay ahead. As the days of the election approached, they were infused with a quiet confidence denied them for so long. Many spoke of finding the waiting very difficult, and just wanted it to be over so that they could go on with their lives. It appeared to me that their struggle had taken so long and so many lives had been lost that it seemed a little unbelieveable that it was happening at last.

Many of the white South African’s that we met were afraid. Afraid of the violence which might take place and of their future under black South African rule. With their farms sometimes stretching to 3,000 acres in the Eastern Cape – vast tracks of grazing land – many wondered what would happen to them, and to their Africaner culture. Entrenched in their past, a few sought to disrupt the election, and some carried their pistols on their excursions to town. Others were pragmatic. They participated in election preparation, and spoke hesitantly of the ‘New South Africa’. They recognised that mistakes had been made, and that Apartheid was wrong, but hoped that this would not be the only thing remembered about the South Africa of the past. Some spoke with pride of their farming heritage and the Voertreckers who ‘civilised’ the land many years before. In general, those we met, hoped that we would recognise their friendly disposition and that we would go back to Ireland with a positive view of South Africa. One elderly farmer we spoke to said plaintively, ‘In South Africa, a farmer reaps what he sows.’ Fluent in Xhosa, the language spoken predominantly in the Eastern Cape, he was confident that everything would be fine for him because of his relationship with the workers on his farm. He wasn’t so confident for others.

In the weeks before the election, everyone, despite their differences, seemed to be working so well together in the little towns we were observing. We heard of violence in other parts of the country on the television but it seemed so far away. But people were waiting for the news to get better, for the killings to stop. Our spirits lifted when we heard that many of hte conservative white politicians had agreed to participate in the election, and the optimism was palpable when the news was announced that Chief Butelezi and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP – with significant support among Zulus and especially in Quazulu Natal) would also participate.

A week before the election, the tide turned. Bombs exploded in Johannesburg and it seemed that the right wing AWB group were responsible. We couldn’t believe it when we heard that one of the polling stations in the Khayamnandi township of Steynsburg (one of the polling stations we were observing) had been completely destroyed by a bomb. Sunday night, 10.45pm, two days before polling. The tension was incredible, when we arrived there early the following morning to inspect the damage, and township residents were shocked and distraught that this could happen to their polling station. Everyone seemed sure that only a few people could have been responsible, yet the police investigation produced no immediate results. The South African army was called in to ensure peace and people spoke of their fear that this could happen again. It was a terrible start to an amazing week. Despite the blast, a new polling station was quickly prepared and on Tuesday morning, 26th April, elderly and sick people went to the polls in their millions to cast their first free vote.

I was working in the town of Hofmeyr on the days of the polling, nervous but excited about how it would all go. As the sun slowly rose around 6am, the polling station was a buzz with anticipation: polling clerks, 24 of them, sat behind their tables, ready for hte first voters. Ballot boxes were being checked and sealed, and party agents were taking notes frantically. Those working in the polling stations were the first to vote on that specially designated polling day. Soon the elderly arrived. Bused from the township in vans and pickup trucks, they made their way slowly to the town hall and waited, pass books in hand. The most feeble were brought to the front of the queue and others had to wait. Inside, the progress was slow. It took about 5 minutes for one person to go through the whole process. Hands were checked nad marked with an invisible ink. An Inkatha sticker was added to each of the ballot papers, which had been printed before their confirmed involvement. Each paper was folded and people were shown to the polling booth. Many asked for special assistance because of their inability to mark their paper on their own and, having voted for the National Assembly and then the Provincial Assembly, they made their way slowly out. At one stage, a very elderly looking woman approached the first table. I could hear rumblings and wondered what was going on. Her pass book was shown proudly, 1895, it read. She was 99 years old and voting for the first time! I felt so privileged to be there to witness such an important and historic event, for her and for everyone in South Africa.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the queues of voters lining up outside polling stations the following day to cast their vote. Nor will I forget the remote spot we were called to where one farmer was using the threat of his shotgun to try to stop workers going to vote. He had to step aside because of police and observer presence and, after a short while, the farm workers proudly walked out of their houses dressed in their best clothes to travel to town to cast their votes. I can remember the tiny polling stations miles from town. Set up in a small room and in a farmer’s shed in the middle of the countryside, the polling stations of Tviot and Spitskop were there to ensure that people who had no transport would be able to vote.

76% of the people who voted in Hofmeyr voted for the ANC and Nelson Mandela. 21% voted for the National Party and F.W. DeKlerk. Venterstad and Steynsburg returned similar results. Around the country, many criticisms were laid at the Independent Electoral Commission in the hours following the start of polling. Ballot papers hadn’t arrived, there were no IFP stickers which would render the ballot paper invalid, and polling stations had not opened on time. Some people saw it as a poor omen for the future. There were no such problems in our area. In the days following the election there was subdued euphoria in the knowledge that Nelson Mandela would win, he would be the next President. As the election results were slow in coming out, the roads were quiet and people stayed at home fearing that violence might still mar the successful transfer of power. Very little such violence has been reported, and the fears of the past have not, as yet, been realised. I don’t think they will. I cannot forget the inspiring way in which people of such diverse cultural and historical backgrounds were willing to work together peacefully.

I left South Africa a few days before the inauguration of the new President. I left with a real sense of hope for the future, following such an historic event. Conscious of the problems which were left to the new government to tackle; the widescale poverty, inequality and unemployment, I am hopeful that the new government will remain true to its promises. South Africa must not be forgotten.



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