CASTING an absentee ballot Tuesday at 7 a.m. in the Massachusetts State House in Boston, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela became one of the first black South Africans ever to vote in a national election.
As she turned in her sealed ballot, applause erupted in the cavernous Doric Hall, startling many onlookers.
Although election rules prohibited Ms. Gobodo-Madikizela, a volunteer monitor, from speaking with reporters, she displayed unmistakable euphoria as she embraced friends and fellow election workers.
Emerging from the tall black-curtained booths, voters' reactions ranged from giddiness to tears.
``It feels so good, I'm so excited. It's like living in a dream,'' said Anna Mabuzo, a student from the Western Transvaal region now living in Cambridge, Mass. ``I see a lot of happiness for everybody, and I see progress now that apartheid is dying. Finally, black people will have a say in how they want our country to be ruled.''
``I feel like a human being,'' she added, her face alight with a smile, ``like I have rights.''
Ms. Mabuzo, whose parents settled in Botswana after being exiled 30 years ago, said she hopes the elections and change of government will convince them to return to their homeland. ``They're very excited,'' she said. ``I feel that they will go back as soon as the country is free.''
Mabuzo and Gobodo-Madikizela were among 1,200 South Africans expected to cast ballots in Boston, joining absentee voters at polling stations in 12 other metropolitain areas across the United States.
Worldwide, a total of 16 million black South Africans were expected to vote in the first of three days of voting. General balloting opened yesterday in South Africa and will conclude today. South Africans will elect a multiracial government of national unity, a national assembly, and legislatures for each of the nine newly created provinces.
``This is the first free election in modern history,'' noted Michael Blaine, a South African citizen working temporarily in Hartford, Conn. ``I pray it is a turning point for peace.''
Gill Garb, southern Africa coordinator for World Education, a rural-development agency based in Boston, said the atmosphere at the State House matches the general tone in South Africa, where she has spent the last several weeks. She described this mood as one of ``cautious jubilation.''
``People do seriously believe that this is the beginning of a new era,'' she said. ``If you said five years ago that we would be voting today in a free national election, we would have said `what a joke,' but it happened.''
Ms. Garb warned, however, that after the elections the country may face the consequences of inflated expectations. ``Some blacks in remote provinces think that come next Monday, they will line up at the factories and get jobs, and will be able to enroll their children in schools,'' she said. ``That will take a long time. It will be a slow transformation.''
``I didn't think that, ever in my lifetime, I would be able to vote,'' says Joan vanHeerdea, a computer programmer originally from Johannesburg. ``The country has many problems ahead, but at least this is the beginning.''
As they arrived at the polling station, voters produced their passports and other identity documents required to prove citizenship.
Voters' hands were stamped with invisible ink to prevent multiple voting. Monitors from the Independent Electoral Commission were on hand to ensure that election rules were closely followed.
After voting, many people milled around on the State House steps, unable to walk away from, what is for many of them, a defining moment of their lives.
Heather Yule, a white South African whose husband is temporarily assigned to work in Boston, muses on the significance of the day.
``On a very personal level, it means that my friends can vote with me today,'' she says. ``For me, that's the major significance. Hopefully, it will bring a democracy and, with it, justice and equality for everybody.''