Blacks Prepare to Cast Their Ballots

Voter-education classes give South Africa's majority population training for the April election

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ALINA MASOLANE, the daughter of a farmworker near this conservative Orange Free State town, reflects the excitement and sanctity with which black South Africans are approaching the country's first all-race elections in April.

``I will be voting for the first time on April 27,'' Ms. Masolane says, radiating a sense of pride and anticipation of the empowerment her vote will bring.

Masolane is one of some 16.2-million black South Africans who are eligible to vote for the first time in a country that has been dominated for 340 years by a white minority who represent 16 percent (3.8 million) of voters.

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Black South Africans, who represent some 72 percent of the country's 22.5-million eligible voters, know that they will determine the outcome of the election.

According to opinion polls conducted by independent pollsters, the African National Congress (ANC), the country's oldest black liberation movement, stands to gain around 60 percent of the vote.

For these millions of black South Africans, voting marks their entry into democratic society. It is a liberation election that symbolizes the end of white rule.

But there are growing concerns about the implications of a boycott by significant parties like the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the right-wing Conservative Party.

Many fear a boycott could raise already high levels of violence and intimidation to the point where large numbers of black voters could stay away from the polls.

The massacre of 15 black youths near the southern Natal village of Creighton (Feb. 19) occurred on the eve of the beginning of a voter-education program in the area.

The ANC-supporting youths had apparently been drawn to the area by the prospect of free political activity in an area where the IFP had a strong presence. They were massacred after midnight as they slept in an abandoned house.

A visit to the northern Natal village of Eqakwini - in the heart of Zululand - revealed that the local chief recently decreed that there would be no more voter education.

Frightened members of the community disclosed that they had been told not to vote and had been warned that people from the ANC would come to kill them on election day, but their chief would protect them.

Ink-stamped thumbs

Masolane is sitting on a tiny wooden bench in the cluttered but comfortable school building on the farm of Albert Whitfield, a cattle and corn farmer whose English ancestors arrived in South Africa in the 19th century.

She has just emerged from a three-hour voter-education session with 140 other farm workers and their relatives.

The session culminated with a mock vote that took participants through all the steps of voting, including producing their identity documents, having them stamped, having their thumbs marked with ultra-violet-sensitive ink - so people cannot vote twice - and, finally, the sacred marking of the ballot paper to indicate the party of their choice.

A massive voter-education project, aimed primarily at an estimated 9.5 million illiterate voters on farms and in rural areas, is striving to ensure that the transfer of political power to the black majority in South Africa is accompanied by economic empowerment and the development of a culture of democracy.

The voter-education program is the core of the campaign to ensure that the elections are free and fair in a country where the white minority has a long tradition of voting.

One of the toughest tasks for educators is to persuade people who have been subjected to repression in the name of apartheid that their vote will be secret.

``Convincing people of the secrecy of the ballot is our most powerful weapon in countering intimidation,'' one educator says.

Voter education, an unknown concept in the country three years ago, has erupted at every level of South African life.

Mobile video units, street-theater groups, and rock groups singing out the message of democracy traverse the country.

Prophets of the City, a Cape Town-based rap group, scored a nationwide hit with their Rapping for Democracy tour.

Half-hour television and radio programs on voter education are slotted between soap operas and evening news bulletins, and prominent South Africans lend their names to the voter-education program of the Democracy Education Broadcasting Initiative.Like many black South Africans, Masolane has had to fight for an education and realizes the significance of the ballot as the first step to making education a right for all South Africans.

Because of the lack of availability of schools in the area when she reached school-going age and the problems that accompany poverty and deprivation, Masolane, now 22, has only just entered high school in the township of Rammalutsi about 12 miles away.

Not enough support

Like many black women, she became a mother in her mid-teens, which disrupted her schooling for several years while she reared her child.

Now she battles to find enough money to support herself in the township in order to attend school there during the week.

``My parents are earning peanuts, and the money they give me is not enough to support myself for a month,'' Masolane says.

When she completes her schooling, she wants to become a social worker so she can help others like herself overcome the social problems that disadvantage many black South Africans.

She says she believes the elections will be a massive step toward economic empowerment and development of the black community.

``I started to hope that there would be elections when leaders of the different races came together to negotiate,'' she says.

Degree of enthusiasm

Not all black South Africans share the awe in which Masolane holds the act of voting.

``Here in the rural areas, one finds a degree of enthusiasm and awe which is not always present in the towns and cities,'' says instructor Sam Xontana, a Baptist minister who travels vast distances in the rural northwest region to explain the April ballot.

The Rev. Xontana is an educator employed by Matla Trust, an organization initiated by the ANC following the release of its jailed leader, Nelson Mandela, in February 1990.

Matla - the Sotho word for empowerment - seeks to promote the development of democracy and socioeconomic uplift.

It has provided a training program for voter educators nationwide and coordinated workshops that have already reached more than a million people and involved tens of thousands of educators from some 500 organizations - including development agencies, political parties, trade unions, schools, universities, and community organizations.

Along with Project Vote, a joint initiative of the Election Support Project funded jointly by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute in Washington, D.C., Matla is the biggest voter-education group in the country.

``I would estimate that upwards of 3 million people have already been reached directly by voter-education programs and many more through radio and television programs,'' says the NDI's Patricia Kiefer, who is based in Johannesburg to coordinate voter education.

``In several ways, South Africa offers unique opportunities for voter education,'' she says.

``Firstly, there is the time factor. We have had three years to prepare for this election, compared with about six months in most other [African] countries,'' Ms. Kiefer says.

``Secondly, the transport and communications infrastructure here is quite exceptional for a country engaging in first-time democracy elections,'' she says.

``The long lead-in period has also allowed us to land up with what is probably the most user-friendly ballot paper ever devised,'' Kiefer says.

Identifying the gaps

The ballot, which was developed partly in response to feedback from voter-education campaigns like Project Vote, consists of the name of the political party, its acronym, the logo in full color, and a photograph of its leader.The group at the top of the voter-education pyramid is the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), which is also charged with supervising and administering the election and certifying the result as ``free and fair.''

The IEC is responsible for coordinating voter-education activities by a plethora of development agencies and community organizations.

``If we identify gaps, we will become involved in voter education ourselves to ensure that voter-education programs reach those areas,'' says Albert Mokoena, the IEC's director of voter education.

Many development agencies were ideally placed to become involved in voter education. Those involved in paralegal work - like the Community Law Center in Natal - have proved to be some of the most effective educators.

In Cape Town, the Voter Education and Elections Training Unit is a creative initiative that has brought under one umbrella four nongovernmental organizations involved in training community organizations.

The result is a national voter-education effort that combines long-term democracy education and empowerment with the shorter-term goal of voter education.The Electoral Law, painstakingly negotiated by all the parties taking part in the election, also gives the IEC considerable leeway in reading the voter's intention before resorting to declaring a spoilt paper.

Two separate ballots

A cross is preferred, but a tick or other mark in the vacant box will be counted. The vote can be counted even if the voter fails to make a mark in the blank box but circles or marks the logo, acronym, or photograph of the leader.

``The whole system has been designed for its simplicity and to encourage full participation,'' Kiefer says. ``It will not intimidate people.''One source of worry to voter educators is the additional voter education and more complicated logistics flowing from the ANC decision (Feb. 11) to agree to two ballots - one regional and one national - rather than insist on the simpler single-ballot system.

``I have difficulty with the concept of two separate ballots in a first-time election in a country where nearly 70 percent of the population is illiterate,'' Xontana says.

Since Xontana began his traveling workshops a year ago, he has reached some 27,000 people in an area of 1.4-million eligible voters.

``One of the slogans people can relate to most easily is: one person, one vote. I fear that to now switch to a system of ``one person, two votes'' could lead to a lot of spoilt papers,'' he says.

But the NDI's Kiefer says that while the switch will present problems, it can be done.

``There is certainly legitimacy to the argument that the vote should be kept as simple as possible the first time around,'' Kiefer says.

``But one must remember that the network is now in place and the prospect of reeducating those who have already been reached directly is not nearly as difficult as it was the first time around.''

During a visit to the country earlier this month, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator Brian Atwood announced a further $10 million in election assistance.

That is over and above the $35.2 million allocated by the US administration for the South African election since 1992. Some $16 million has gone toward voter education (see chart, left).

Mr. Atwood makes clear that at least some of the additional $10 million could be used for more voter education and expenditure related to a switch from a single- to a double-ballot system.Albert Whitfield, the farmer who hosted the voter-education workshop attended by this reporter, is enthusiastic about the national effort to educate farm workers about the ballot.

``I think it is vital that people know what they are voting for and what the election is about,'' Mr. Whitfield says.

He is one of only a handful of farmers who will allow voter educators on his farm to teach black farm workers about the meaning of the election and democracy and how to vote.

Election seen as threat

Most of the country's 50,000 or so white farmers belong to conservative and right-wing groups and see the election as a threat to their land, culture, and the privileges they have enjoyed.

``They are suspicious of every black face,'' Xontana says.

``I think it is a terrible tragedy that so many farmers will not allow voter education to be conducted on their farms,'' Whitfield says.

Xontana says farmers who do not allow voter educators on their farms could create serious problems in the black community.

The Independent Electoral Commission has ruled that property owners do not have the right to exclude voter educators from their land, but that the time and condition of such visits must be negotiated between the parties, and five days written notice must precede any visit.

``If we are unable to reach the majority of white farms, it will be perceived by black voters as a perpetuation of white domination in the rural areas and could detract from the legitimacy and impact of the election result,'' he says.

``Whatever the official verdict, blacks will not regard the poll as free and fair if there has been this kind of discrimination.

``If the interim government which results is not generally accepted, it will have limited power to deliver,'' he adds. Intimidation and violence are the greatest obstacles to a free and fair election.

But Western diplomats and international monitors say that the international community will be prepared to certify an election result even if 15 percent of the population - in areas like Zululand and right-wing strongholds - has been prevented from voting.

The electoral law allows the IEC to excise from the overall result voting districts where violence and intimidation have prevented a free and fair vote.

When Xontana asked the farm workers what they expected from the election, their responses were not much different from those of an urban audience: freedom, peace, better education, equality, and jobs.

`I want to be free'

``Things have been improving ever since Mandela was released,'' says Jess Thatelo, a worker from a neighboring farm run by Whitfield's son, David.

Mr. Thatelo, who was born and did his schooling in Soweto, decided to return to the relative peace of life on a farm where he has been working since 1963.

Today, Thatelo earns about $120 a month. His housing and water are free, but he must pay for food, transport, and electricity (about $10 per month).

The family has a television set in its neat two-bedroom home. The Thatelos do not suffer from the violence and crime that plagues the urban townships, and unemployment is not an immediate problem for them.

Their eldest son is a driver in the Army, one daughter is married, and one is still at school.

``I think that the vote will bring a better life,'' Thatelo says. ``I want a better education for my children and a better life for myself. I want to be free.''

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