AN atmosphere of expectation and excitement has displaced the pall of gloom that hung over South Africa's first democratic elections for several months.
The new mood was only marginally dissipated by the death of seven people in a car-bomb explosion yesterday morning in Johannesburg. The bomb exploded midway between the national and regional headquarters of the African National Congress (ANC), the group expected to win an outright victory in this week's poll.
Since the late entry of the rejectionist Inkatha Freedom Party April 19 into the election stakes, violence levels have dropped substantially, and in many places in strife-torn Natal Province, conflict has given way to feverish preparation for the ballot.
``This election is not about sandbags and machine guns. It is a festival,'' Independent Electoral Commission chair- man Johann Kriegler, the Appeal Court judge charged with organizing and certifying the ballot, said on Friday.
The killing on Saturday of at least three ANC supporters on their first campaign venture in the Inkatha stronghold of Ulundi - the KwaZulu capital - was another reminder of those bent on disrupting the poll.
But election monitors and diplomats are confident that the groundswell of enthusiasm is unstoppable, and that security arrangements are capable of containing plans by the extreme white right-wing to disrupt the poll.
`Attack on democracy'
ANC spokesman Paul Niehaus described yesterday's bombing as a direct attack on the democratic process and on the ANC, which was to have held voter education session at its downtown headquarters yesterday. Mr. Niehaus urged ANC supporters not to be intimidated by such ``terroristic'' action.
At the ANC's closing rally outside Soweto on Saturday, ANC President Nelson Mandela launched a scathing verbal attack on President Frederik de Klerk and the ruling National Party (NP). But he also warned ANC supporters who fired guns in the air at the rally that they would be expelled from the organization, and he reprimanded ANC marshals for failing to disarm them.
About 60,000 mainly black ANC supporters attended the rally.
Recently, Mr. Mandela warned supporters not to pitch their expectations too high and abandon mass protest now that they have achieved the vote.
Mr. De Klerk, addressing a multiracial crowd of about 15,000 at the NP's closing rally in Cape Town on Saturday, portrayed the ANC as an ``ungodly and un-Christian'' party in alliance with communists.
Inkatha leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi addressed well-attended closing rallies in Soweto and the KwaZulu capital of Ulundi yesterday. He projected Inkatha as the true custodian of free enterprise federalism and political freedom.
Chief Buthelezi has vowed to abide by the international community's judgment on whether the poll is free and fair, and said he will abide by the interim constitution, which requires him to join a government of national unity if he wins 5 percent or more of the national vote.
On Saturday, Gen. Constand Viljoen's right-wing Freedom Front signed a historic agreement with the ANC and government that provides for the setting up of a white Afrikaner homeland after the election if the FF can demonstrate ``substantial'' support for the concept in the April 26-28 ballot. The agreement provides for a statutory 20-person homeland council after the election and acknowledges the right of any cultural and linguistic minority to demand self-determination.
General Viljoen said on Saturday that he would regard ``substantial'' support as between 35 and 40 percent (about 700,000) of some 1.8 million white Afrikaner votes.
The South African Police announced on Friday that anyone suspected of plans to disrupt the poll would be detained without trial under the notorious section 29 of the Internal Security Act, one of the remnants of apartheid being carried into the post-apartheid era.
Amnesty for security forces
Following a meeting with De Klerk, Mandela said on Friday that an amnesty for members of the security forces was ``a matter of great importance because of the state of insecurity in the security forces.'' A blanket amnesty deal, which is likely to be announced shortly after the election, could help defuse right-wing resistance to the country's transition to democracy.
Law and Order Minister Hernus Kriel, the NP's candidate for premier of Western Cape Province, confirmed on Saturday that he shredded official documents before vacating his ministerial office. The ANC expressed outrage and demanded to know what ``dark secrets'' he was keeping from the public.
Last Thursday, more than 40 former police generals threw in their lot with Viljoen's FF. White extremists in Western Transvaal towns declared themselves part of an undefined Afrikaner homeland, and armed right-wingers enforced a curfew on blacks.
South African newspapers yesterday reflected the country's preoccupation with its most historic event. ``Final Step to Freedom,'' trumpeted the Sunday Times of Johannesburg, the country's best-selling weekly newspaper. The issue displayed 21 pages of political advertising - including four pages paid for by Inkatha.
On Friday, the Johannesburg Star carried a front-page interview with President Clinton who signaled that the US is poised to announce ``substantial'' assistance to the new government.
``The United States is elated at the prospect of these elections, and we want to celebrate with and support South Africa,'' Mr. Clinton said. ``I think both Mandela and De Klerk are remarkable stories, and together they are a stern rebuke to the cynics of the world.''
The Rev. Jesse Jackson was due to arrive in South Africa yesterday at the head of a US delegation to observe the elections. Vice President Al Gore Jr. will lead a US delegation to Pretoria for the May 10 inauguration of the country's new president.
The validity of the poll will be certified by Judge Kriegler in conjunction with some 20,000 South African monitors and about 2,000 international observers.