South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission faced a daunting task in January 1994. The newly established body had less than four months to organize and implement the country's first fully inclusive democratic elections. The stakes were high. A successful vote would signal a new beginning for the nation after the apartheid era. Failure could mean civil war. Sitting in his Johannesburg home in 2010, 77-year-old Johann Kriegler, who led the Independent Electoral Commission, reflected on that year. "We had the worst administration you can imagine," he said. "But we had the political will and we were legitimate. That's what you need. If you haven't got a Mandela, you're in trouble!"
In February 1990, President F.W. de Klerk, the leader of the minority white National Party, released African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison, and lifted the apartheid-era ban on the ANC and other political organizations. But as the ANC and the National Party began bilateral talks, violence escalated and was particularly severe in KwaZulu-Natal, a quasi-independent area, where supporters of the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) frequently clashed. In the run-up to the election for the transitional government, no one knew for certain whether peace would prevail.
The opposition parties did not trust the old government's Department of Home Affairs, which had previously administered the country's elections, to run this new election; instead, they decided to set up an entirely new electoral commission. Under the 1993 Independent Electoral Commission Act, the president appointed 11 South African election commissioners and five international commissioners. The South African commissioners had to be respected, representative, and suitably qualified members of society who did not hold high-profile political posts. All commissioners were required to act impartially and independently. Selected commissioners included Johann Kriegler, who served on the Supreme Court; Ben van der Ross, who was working for a South African development agency; and Charles Nupen, who had run the ANC's first internal party elections in the early 1990s and had a background in mediation work. The electoral act also set up a Monitoring Directorate, mandated to keep tabs on every step of the electoral process. In many ways, the commissioners felt they were walking into the unknown when they took their posts. "It's rather like Ulysses passing through the gates of knowledge," Nupen said. "It's only when you pass through a particular gate that you begin to understand and recognize ... precisely what lies ahead."
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The commission held its first substantive meeting in January 1994 and decided on an election date of April 27 -- a date that had "assumed great symbolic significance" when it was suggested in the constitutional roadmap of July 1993. The commission faced several logistical and political challenges. It would be the country's first inclusive elections: Under apartheid, only white South Africans could vote; now the electorate expanded six fold from 3 million to an estimated 18 million voters.
The commission decided early on that bringing all key political players into the electoral process was a priority. When the commission began its work, several important figures, such as leaders of "homeland" areas, did not cooperate, and had the potential to destabilize the elections. Under apartheid, black homeland areas had been set up by the white government to separate the black population. Homeland leaders consequently felt threatened by the transition to democracy because their political power depended on the apartheid system remaining in place; some even tried to prevent election-related activities in their territories. The white right similarly opposed the electoral process, such as the Afrikaner Volksfront (AVF), which promoted the idea of an Afrikaner people's state. Meanwhile, fringe elements of the white right went further, engaging in acts of violent sabotage. General distrust also increased the difficulty of winning cooperation between the two main parties, the National Party and the ANC.
The Department of Home Affairs provided some staff to the commission to assist in running the elections. Initially, many in the commission were suspicious of the staff from the old regime, but believed it important to use their skills -- they were the only organization in the country with any experience running elections. Norman du Plessis, who had helped draft some of the transitional legislation, was among those sent to help. According to head commissioner Kriegler, du Plessis "ultimately proved [to be] invaluable."
From the beginning, the commission worked closely with political parties. Drawing inspiration from the peace committees that had worked on conflict resolution while the country negotiated the 1991 National Peace Accord, the commission set up a party liaison committee. Each party nominated two members to the committee which operated behind closed doors as a forum for conflict management between the parties, with the electoral commission acting as arbiter.