VENTERSDORP, SOUTH AFRICA — I AM very happy because I have voted for the first time,'' says Robert Ramotlou, a black South African youth who lives in the impoverished township of Tshing adjoining this right-wing stronghold about 80 miles west of Johannesburg.
``I think my vote will be very important in the new South Africa,'' Mr. Ramotlou says, emerging from the polling station at Tshing Primary School with a purposeful stride and unmistakable sense of pride.
Long, multiracial lines of voters queued up in towns like this for the first time yesterday - a public holiday - in a rare display of racial integration in what has traditionally been an exclusively white affair in South Africa.
``The vote will bring us democracy, and it will bring black and white together,'' Ramotlou says. ``Up to now we have been oppressed under apartheid. Now we will be free and equal.'' He is one of some 16 million black South Africans who are expected to have cast their votes by the time polling stations close tonight.
Ramotlou expresses optimism despite his awareness of a series of bomb blasts that have rocked towns and cities around Johannesburg in the past four days, including a car bomb yesterday at the main international airport, which injured at least 18 people.
South African police yesterday arrested 31 suspects in connection with the airport explosion and blasts in Johannesburg and Germiston on Sunday and Monday. The arrests were made in Rustenburg, Pretoria, and here in Ventersdorp.
Police commissioner Johan Van der Merwe said some of those arrested were members of the white neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB), which opposes the transition to black majority rule.
But Ramotlou says he was not scared to vote, even though the AWB of Eugene TerreBlanche has its headquarters here.
``I am not afraid of Terreblanche because I know we are being protected by the South African Defence Force,'' he says.
He is not alone. The spate of bomb attacks, believed to be the work of white right-wing terrorists, has had little impact on voting. Millions of South Africans streamed to the polls yesterday to join long lines - some measuring more than a mile.
The delays appeared to be caused by inexperienced electoral staff, the late arrival of ballot papers, and cumbersome voting procedures.
The last-minute entry of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party required the printing of 90 million stickers to be added to the ballot. This appears to have overtaxed an administrative machine already under heavy stress.
The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) yesterday announced that Thursday would be declared a public holiday, and voting hours would be extended beyond the 7 p.m. closing time to ensure that everybody had an opportunity to vote.
An IEC spokesman said voting materials were being airlifted to polling stations where they had not arrived or were in short supply.
The ANC congratulated voters for their patience and criticized the ``inefficiencies'' that had led to ``inordinate delays.''
In some areas, such as the town of Alberton and the adjoining townships of Katlehong and Tokoza, voting material did not arrive until after midday yesterday.
Inkatha leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi claimed widespread vote rigging and bottlenecks in the voting in strife-torn Natal Province, and called on the authorities to extend voting beyond the designated three days.
IEC chairman Johann Kriegler said he did not have the power to extend voting beyond the three days allocated. Only the politicians could authorize such a move.
But here in Ventersdorp, considered one of the high-risk areas for right-wing violence, voting went off without incident, and black and white joined orderly queues to cast their ballots.
Armored SADF personnel carriers with automatic weapons patrolled the streets and areas around the voting station, but the khaki-clad soldiers of the AWB kept a low profile.
AWB headquarters in the town's main street was barricaded with sand bags - almost up to roof level - and remaining openings were covered with steel mesh.
AWB leader Eugene TerreBlanche made a brief appearance in the town after the polls opened. When spotted by a reporter and asked to comment on the election, he replies curtly: ``No comment, I am on holiday.''
Many whites from Ventersdorp appear to be voting for Gen. Constand Viljoen's Freedom Front, a right-wing breakaway from the more extreme Afrikaner Volksfront that is taking part in the poll to demonstrate support for a white Afrikaner homeland (Volkstaadt).
In contrast to the upbeat mood of blacks voting for the first time, right-wing whites were in a dejected mood.
``I am not very happy at all,'' says Danie Strydom, a farm manager in Ventersdopr district.
``I voted because we have to do our best to see what we can save. Our fathers died for this country, and now it is just being given away. We don't know what will happen.''