I HAD the privilege of observing South Africa's elections at a number of different polling stations, ranging from the largely white Addington in downtown Durban to the black township of Indana, where Nelson Mandela cast his ballot.
More than anything else I was stunned by voters' enthusiasm and energy.
I am in my 20s, born after the last significant era of mass-scale political consciousness and activity, the 1960s. My generation does not sit in; instead, we wear Malcom X hats. My generation does not protest war; we watch it on television like a video game. We don't have Woodstock; we have MTV. And our Olympic athletes are more concerned with hiding the wrong commercial endorsement on their track suits than with political protest.
For me, coming from a country where a large percentage of citizens who are eligible to vote do not even register, it was amazing to be in a place where many children, even in outlying townships, can tell you the differences between Mr. Mandela and Frederik de Klerk, and can sing any number of liberation songs upon request. Many must be turned away because they are too young to vote.
The vote was also a display of endurance. Voters ignored threats of violence. They waited long hours, sometimes days in line to mark their first ballot.
In places there was disorganization and even chaos. But the chaos was, in a way, appropriate. After 300 years of racial oppression and resistance, the last 40 of which placed the country in a precarious void between the first and third worlds, the vote marked the end of one struggle and the beginning of another.
This collective experience launched the beginning of a new endurance test - the still uncertain character of the final liberation.
The restoration of public dignity to millions of South Africans, which comes with the new majority-elected government of National Unity, is a powerful beginning. Untangling the knots of apartheid, however, will take an enormous commitment of time, patience, and collective will.
The culture of protest that brought this country to this profound moment must now give way to a new culture of tolerance, support for a government that represents the people's will, and awareness of the vast difficulties ahead.
Apartheid has etched its horrors on millions of individual lives. As each proudly beaming face came out from behind the booth, this oppressive history overcome, each voter's future hopes undoubtedly reflected his or her own past experience.
What impressed me most on that day, and what most enhanced my confidence in this country's future, was the collective endurance, dignity, and joy with which democracy came to South Africa. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.