AFRICAN National Congress President Nelson Mandela is poised to take over power in South Africa from President Frederik De Klerk - the man who freed him from jail four years ago. The ANC, the liberation group that resisted white rule for 82 years, has won an outright majority in the country's founding vote, according to projections based on about 20 percent of the vote counted.
Mr. Mandela was due to declare victory May 10 in a ballot that has restored the dignity of black South Africans and begun to bond the nation's diverse population. The handover of power will mark the end of more than four decades of apartheid rule and will place control in the hands of the black majority for the first time in history.
But the landmark event has been tarnished by administrative bungling, protracted delays in the casting and counting of votes, and at least 200 complaints by rival political groups.
The most serious incident - which smacks of deliberate sabotage - involves hundreds of thousands of unused ballots destined for polling stations near Johnannesburg. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has issued summons against four warehouse managers suspected of intercepting the ballots.
Projections indicate that the ANC will win about 58 percent of the vote and the ruling National Party (NP) about 28 percent. The Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, likely to come in third with about 6 percent of the vote, could be a third player in a coalition cabinet that will be dominated by the two giants of South African politics.
The NP put in a stronger showing than predicted by most polls. Mr. De Klerk is ensured of becoming one of two deputy presidents and the party will be entitled to at least five posts in the coalition cabinet.
``We have just witnessed a major milestone in South Africa's transition to nonracial democracy,'' said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, president of the Rainbow Coalition, who led a United States delegation to the country.
The voting process was remarkable in several respects: It took place in an atmosphere of peace and mutual tolerance, and South Africans of all races showed an irrepressible will to vote despite administrative bottlenecks, long delays, and right-wing intimidation.
A series of bomb blasts in the days before the poll failed to deter millions of South Africans streaming to the polls - often to wait for four or five hours to vote.
``In all the places that I have been, the election breathed an air of reconciliation, and that is what the country needs,'' De Klerk said, visiting polling stations on April 28, the second day of the poll. ``Violence has abated ... and we have had no overt intimidation.''
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, also a Nobel Peace laureate, said voting for the first time was an ``incredible'' feeling. ``It was like falling in love,'' he said.
The long multiracial lines, where blacks and whites engaged in a position of true equality for the first time, became the nucleus of an extraordinary transformation in the psyche of a nation.
The substantial majority projected for the ANC will give the organization a clear majority in the government of national unity, but would deny it the two-thirds majority it would have needed to finalize the interim constitution on its own.
How other parties fared
The NP is set to win a clear majority in the Western Cape region, where the ``colored'' (mixed race) community, which forms an overall majority in the province, turned out in massive numbers to vote for De Klerk.
Inkatha, which boycotted the election until a week before the poll, could become the only other party likely to cross the 5 percent threshold to qualify for a place in the government of national unity. This would ensure Inkatha leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi a place in the coalition cabinet.
The right-wing Freedom Front, which regards the election as a referendum to test support for a separate homeland among some 1.8 million white Afrikaners, appears set to win fourth place with around 4 percent of the vote.
The liberal Democratic Party (DP) is set to win close to 3 percent of the vote and fifth place, which would give it a dozen parliamentary seats but none in the cabinet.
The militant Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) is set to place a poor sixth with little more than one percent of the vote.
Vote counting, which is likely to continue until tomorrow in some polling stations, could lead to several days of wrangling before the final result is certified.
Criticism of the IEC
But Judge Johann Kriegler, the Chairman of the IEC who was responsible for organizing and certifying the ballot, on Saturday declared the balloting phase of the election free and fair.
Lakdhar Brahimi, United Nations special representative and coordinator of some 2,000 international monitors, backed up Mr. Kriegler's finding.
While noting ``major administrative and logistical problems,'' Mr. Brahimi said that the monitors were satisfied that ``the people of South Africa were able to participate freely in the voting.''
Kriegler, who has faced widespread criticism from politicians and the media over administrative delays and incompetence by IEC officials, Saturday abandoned efforts to reconcile the number of blank issued ballots with returned marked ballots before the votes are counted at individual polling stations. He said that the reconciliation would now take place after counting the votes. IEC critics insist that Kriegler must explain what has happened to between 30 and 40 million ballots.
``This election is about national reconciliation and not ballot reconciliation,'' Kriegler said.