AN unprecedented monitoring effort to ensure that the country's first all-race elections are ``free and fair'' launched into action this week, only two and a half months before the historic ballot.
While the ruling National Party government will remain the legal power in the 11-week run-up to the ballot, preparations for the election will be conducted by an independent, multiracial commission known as the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).
The Commission, a statutory body consisting of 16 commissioners headed by Appeal Court Judge Johan Kriegler, will administer, organize, and supervise the elections; prevent the intimidation of voters; and oversee a voter-education campaign that must reach about 16 million black South Africans participating in elections for the first time.
But the task will be difficult. Right-wing white and conservative black parties are threatening to boycott the vote, and political violence and intimidation overshadow the campaign.
The statutory powers of the Commission were activated last Friday. The election is to be held during three days from April 26-28.
The Commission alone will determine whether the country's first democratic ballot can be certified ``substantially free and fair'' and if the outcome will stand. The IEC will remain intact until the new government is formed, no more than 10 days after the poll.
Threat to the campaign
As hopes faded yesterday for a settlement that would draw white right-wing parties and conservative black homeland leaders into an inclusive deal, the South Africans responsible for conducting the ballot braced themselves for a tough 10 weeks.
If the dissenting parties do not register for the election by midnight Saturday they will not be able to participate in the ballot.
Political violence, already claiming an average of 300 to 350 deaths a month, mainly in Natal province and townships east of Johannesburg, is expected to escalate in the run-up to the ballot and spread to right-wing strongholds in rural Transvaal and Orange Free State Province.
A spate of about 30 bomb attacks in these conservative areas over the past 10 weeks is seen as an indication of what lies ahead as right-wing whites, demanding a separate Afrikaner homeland, try to take by force what they have failed to achieve through negotiations.
During the past weeks, President Frederik de Klerk has been drowned out by militant supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) in several black townships, and people he has called on have had to be given police protection after receiving death threats.
A white Afrikaner farmer, who received media exposure as an ANC member when ANC President Nelson Mandela visited the Western Transvaal town of Potchefstroom Jan. 28, was the target of a bomb attack at his farm last week, but was not hurt.
In the nominally independent homeland of Bophuthatswana, which as a member of the conservative Freedom Alliance appears set to boycott the election, a Jan. 30 ANC rally had to be called off when members of the homeland security forces intervened.
``The test of the Electoral Commission's effectiveness will be in dealing with events like these,'' a diplomat said.
The Commission will have the power to cancel the votes of areas where it judges that violence prevented people from voting according to their intentions.
``The subject of intimidation is more difficult,'' Judge Kriegler told The Star, Johannesburg's major daily newspaper, in a rare interview recently.
``Here the main weapon we have is the secret ballot,'' he said, referring to a major focus of the voter-education program, which is to convince voters that their vote is secret.
Kriegler said there would be wide consultation with foreign observers in determining whether the poll is ``free and fair.''
This would include looking at the voter turnout, the level of violence, and radical discrepancies between results and opinion polls. ``Each operation of this kind is unique - we will have to make our decision based on the information we have,'' he said.
To achieve these ends, the Commission is armed with powers to crackdown on parties or individuals who infringe a rigorous Electoral Code of Conduct.
Electoral Tribunals and a Special Electoral Court will be empowered to impose heavy fines and jail sentences to those found guilty of disrupting the electoral process.
Kriegler's deputy is Dikgang Moseneke, a senior black lawyer and former deputy president of the militant Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC).
Other members include prominent South Africans such as civil rights campaigner Helen Suzman, South African Council of Churches Secretary-General Frank Chikane, Johan Heyns, a former moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church, and Oscar Dhlomo, a former secretary-general of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) who now heads the independent Institute for Multi-Party Democracy in Durban.
Gay McDougall, of the US-based Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, is one of five international representatives on the Commission who will also work with a committee of international experts.
Last month United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali proposed that some 1,800 UN civilian observers should help monitor the poll as the largest component of around 3,000 international observers. In addition some 1,000 to 2,000 nongovernmental observers are expected from foreign countries.
They will join with more than 100,000 South African monitors and electoral officials at about 9,000 polling stations nationwide.
``We cannot allow this election to be delayed for logistical or other reasons,'' said United States Agency of International Development Administrator Brian Atwood, who completed a visit to the country last week.