UP to 16 million black South Africans go to the polls for the first time April 27 to bury more than four decades of apartheid rule and elect the first majority government in the country's 340-year history.
``The many years of struggle by our people are about to be rewarded,'' said African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela, who is almost certain to become the country's new president. ``Our task is now to heal the wounds of the past.''
The landmark all-race ballot is the culmination of an extraordinary initiative that began in 1986 when Mr. Mandela started a dialogue from behind prison bars with leaders of the country's beleaguered white minority.
The dialogue was formalized in 1990 when President Frederik de Klerk freed Mandela and began dismantling one of the century's most immoral and damaging experiments in social engineering.
The election, a momentous occasion for South Africans of all races, has become a seminal event for all mankind with unprecedented international interest in the domestic affairs of another nation.
``The entire world is not just watching this country over the next few days,'' a Western diplomat says. ``It is cheering for South Africa to win.''
Late April 26, at five minutes before midnight, the orange, white, and blue South African flag - with the British Union Jack and the flags of the old Boer (Afrikaner) republics in the center -
was lowered for the last time. The new multicolored, striped flag that contains the ANC colors and is supported by all race groups, was hoisted just after midnight.
At the same time, the South African Defense Force ceased to exist and merged with the liberation armies of the ANC, the Pan-Africanist Congress, and the armies of the former black homelands to make a new national force: the South African National Defense Force.
Voting began April 26 for the aged, disabled, pensioners, and the hospitalized. Civil servants, policemen, and prisoners also voted, as did up to 250,000 South Africans living abroad.
Electoral officials said that up to 3 million of the country's 22.3 million voters were eligible to vote April 26. General voting was due to begin at 7 a.m. April 27 and continue until late April 28. Election results are expected to be known by May 1.
THE first voter in the election was Nomaza Paintin of Wellington, New Zealand - the niece of ANC President Nelson Mandela. New Zealand is 10 hours ahead of South Africa and was, therefore, the first polling station to open.
``I never thought it would happen in my lifetime,'' said Ms. Paintin, wearing a traditional-style African dress in the ANC colors. Paintin emigrated to New Zealand with her husband three decades ago. ``I feel I am casting this vote on the shoulders of my ancestors,'' she added.
In South Africa, Mandela spoke to journalists for the last time before the ballot.
Following a series of bomb blasts by suspected right-wing terrorists - which have claimed at least 21 lives and left more than 160 people injured - Mandela urged South Africans to stand up against the violence and vote for a better life.
``Years of imprisonment could not stamp out our determination to be free. Years of intimidation and violence could not stop us. And we will not be stopped now,'' Mandela said in a message to all South Africans.
The election is taking place under conditions of unprecedented security involving 100,000 policemen and the biggest-ever call-up of the military in peace time.
``We will not let a handful of killers steal our democracy,'' said Mandela, adding that he was satisfied with security arrangements for the poll after talks with security chiefs.
In recent weeks, the ANC leader has dropped the rhetoric of resistance and is clearly preparing himself for the demands of high office.
He has been warning his supporters against mass protest and violence and urging them to lower their expectations about material improvements in their standard of living after the election, cautioning that it will take time.
For the past four years, South Africans have been consumed in political talks that resulted this week in one of the most complex transitions to democracy ever devised. ``I think you could call it a negotiated revolution,'' says Heribert Adam, a Cape Town University sociologist and author.
Mandela has been true to his word given from behind prison bars that he would seek a compromise between the black demand for majority rule and the white demand for structural guarantees. And Mr. De Klerk has kept his promise to eradicate all forms of race discrimination and negotiate a system based on the rule of law and the protection of minority rights.
The interim constitution provides for a Transitional Government of National Unity (TGNU), which will ensure that parties that win more than 5 percent of the national vote will be included in a coalition cabinet for up to five years. Voters will elect a 400-member National Assembly and nine provincial legislatures. Regional interests will be safe-guarded by a 90-member Senate, and power will be vested in the constitution - safe-guarded by a constitutional court.
Minority interests are safeguarded through a Bill of Rights, a voting system based on proportional representation, and the inclusion of the principle of self-determination - for cultural and linguistic minorities - in a set of constitutional principles.
Elements of the Zulus and the Afrikaners - the two ethnic groups demanding a form of self-rule - have won special concessions from the majority parties.
The future status of the Zulu monarchy was guaranteed in a last-minute constitutional amendment on April 25 when the white-dominated Parliament sat for the last time.
And right-wing Afrikaners have reached an accord whereby they will pursue their demand for a white Afrikaner homeland after the election through a statutory body known as the homeland council (Volkstaatsraad).
The TGNU will rule until an elected assembly finalizes the constitution. A second election will be held within two to five years on the basis of straight majority rule.
Mandela said that the major focus of the TGNU would be to unite people of different political persuasions. ``Our primary task is to ensure that the basic needs of the people are met,'' he said.
``On major issues, we must speak with one voice. This places a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of the majority party ... to lead the country away from the past and remove the atmosphere of insecurity among the minorities,'' he added.