Organizing the first post-apartheid election in 1994 took a lot of logistical planning and political inclusion. But it also took a lot of creativity in finding solutions to the numerous problems that arose.
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."
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.
On top of managing these political challenges, the commission faced numerous practical handicaps. Most of the commissioners' efforts focused on creating polling places, making sure candidates had access to voters, and drawing potential spoilers, such as the white right and some of the homeland leaders, into the process.
Because there was not enough time to compile a voter roll, determining eligibility would have to take place at each polling station. Yet many potential voters had no identity documents, so the electoral commission had to issue temporary voter cards where necessary. The task was difficult to manage effectively in the limited time available. The Department of Home Affairs initially estimated that two and a half million temporary cards would be needed, but by the end of the election, the commission had issued over a million more than that.
One of the biggest logistical challenges was determining suitable sites for polling stations. The parties agreed that every voter should be able to walk to a polling station, meaning about 9,500 polling sites had to be identified. But the parties disagreed about precisely where the polling stations should be located and often pressured the commission to set up more polling stations in areas where they had the most support.
The commissioners and staff found it hard to pick station locations because they didn't know what facilities were available to use as voting stations. One commission official recalled the lack of current and detailed maps: "The rural areas had never been mapped... [and] there hadn't been a census of black people done in the country since the 1950s." Exacerbating these difficulties was that, in the absence of a voter roll, no one knew how many voters would show up at each polling station. The commission therefore contacted South African Breweries, the largest brewer in the country, and used its distribution figures as a proxy for where people lived. The problem, however, was that not everybody bought beer near their home. As a result, several large polling stations that the commission had planned based on beer sales remained virtually empty on Election Day, while others experienced long lines.
Throughout the four months preparation period, the political parties continued to negotiate aspects of the electoral process. One sudden change was to have separate ballots for the national and provincial elections, rather than one ballot. But an additional ballot box at each polling site meant that 1,500 of the 9,500 sites were too small and that more staff was required. The commissioners opted to use temporary polling stations that could be transported and set up easily. Van der Ross contacted a friend from a large construction firm, and "within 24 hours they actually designed a structure, made a prototype, brought it to Johannesburg, [and] rigged it up in our board room," he said.
Identifying suitable polling sites was also difficult because the commission could not easily access certain areas of the country until near the election. For example, Lucas Mangope, the leader of the homeland Bophuthatswana, did not allow the electoral commission to work in his region and mobilized the Bophuthatswana Defence Force to crush local political dissent. But around mid-March, the Force mutinied, prompting paramilitary members of the Afrikaner Volksfront and the far-right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) to enter the territory in a bid to shore up Mangope's power. Violence escalated quickly until the South African Defence Force intervened to restore order. Bophuthatswana was subsequently reintegrated into South Africa's administration, and the electoral commission was able to access the territory.
The commission also had to facilitate parties' access to so-called "no-go" areas so that all parties could campaign freely across the country. It launched a program called Operation Access to liaise with local party structures and organize public meetings. Through the program, candidates would travel together in minibuses and address crowds in short speeches. The commission organized 106 Operation Access meetings in total. Only one ended unsuccessfully, when two weeks before the election, candidates from the ruling National Party traveled with the program to campaign in Phola Park, an ANC stronghold southeast of Johannesburg. The candidates encountered a hostile crowd and when told by their army escorts that their safety could no longer be guaranteed, they decided to leave without campaigning.
The government intervention in Bophuthatswana caused at least one potential spoiler to join the electoral process. According to Kriegler, circulated footage of the far-right AWB members being shot point-blank in the conflict "put the fear of God into a lot of the right-wing." The AVF, the AWB's companions in the botched intervention in Bophuthatswana, then joined the elections under the party name Freedom Front. Nupen said that this was a "critically important watershed, because if they had become an abiding, destabilizing element, it would have made [the electoral process] very, very difficult."
To be as inclusive as possible, commissioners sometimes bent the rules in order to draw these disaffected parties into the electoral process. When the Freedom Front came to register, the commission extended the registration deadline so that it could submit its papers. The commission also extended the deadline for the Pan Africanist Congress. Kriegler remembered the head of the Pan Africanist Congress coming in with the registration documents after the midnight deadline: "There was the clock showing 20 to 1:00 in the morning, and du Plessis saying, 'It looks like five to 12:00 to me.'"
More challenging than bringing the white right into the electoral process, however, was persuading the leader of the KwaZulu homeland and the Inkatha Freedom Party to join the elections. Violent clashes continued between ANC and IFP supporters in the weeks before the elections, increasing concerns that the electoral administration in KwaZulu would be seriously compromised -- particularly as staff had already been taken hostage and even caught in the crossfire of a shootout. About a week before the elections, IFP leader Buthelezi agreed that his party would participate. However, the commission had to address the implications of the last-minute changes, such as issuing an additional 700,000 temporary voter cards in KwaZulu-Natal within the span of four days. Between 600 and 700 more polling stations also had to be identified, set up, and staffed. In the last two days before the elections, the commission recruited 13,000 additional staff. It also had to modify the already-printed ballots, affixing millions of IFP stickers at the bottom of each ballot -- and had to compensate the National Party, which originally occupied the bottom spot of the ballots and had run an entire election campaign highlighting this fact.
Voting day itself was met with numerous obstacles. The polls opened a day early to allow the elderly, hospital patients, and the electoral staff to vote. What the commission had not bargained on was the hundreds of thousands who turned up, even though the polls were not open for regular voters. "So what does the presiding officer do?" Kriegler asked. "He says, 'Come in my brothers, come and vote.'" The early opening of many polling stations, combined with the absence of a voter roll, led to a shortage of ballots in many areas. Polling stations in some areas were unable to function because of the shortages.
The commission agreed to extend the voting to ensure everyone would get the chance to vote. It also had to arrange for many more ballots to be printed. Ballot boxes also were in short supply, forcing many presiding officers to take unconventional measures to store the completed ballots, opening closed boxes and restacking the papers to make more room. Voters' fingers were marked with ink that would show up under ultraviolet light, an important measure to prevent people from voting twice. The commission decided to use ultraviolet ink with Kwazulu in mind: Before the IFP rejoined the elections, officials worried that marking voters' fingers with visible ink would make them vulnerable to attack. If the IFP was not on the ballot, then anybody who cast a vote would necessarily be supporting the opposition -- visible ink would help the IFP's henchmen figure out who needed to be reprimanded. But as voting got under way, supplies of ultraviolet ink quickly ran out. The forensic department of the police worked quickly on manufacturing and duplicating the special ink.
The commission was forced to rely on various officials at the polling stations to resolve other problems that continued to crop up. The communications infrastructure was so limited, especially in rural areas, that the commission could not be involved in sorting out every problem. Even international election observers, in a breach of normal protocols, adopted a hands-on approach, guiding and assisting local-level election officials at moments when observers would usually just take notes.
The votes then had to be counted. The electoral commission had decided they would be counted in central counting stations (rather than where the votes were cast), but the number was far from enough. Consequently, some counting stations faced enormous tasks. One in Johannesburg, for example, tallied three million votes, representing about 15 percent of the electorate. The electoral commission had devised a series of procedures to ensure that each ballot box could be traced back to its polling station. The problems started when exhausted electoral workers showed up at the counting stations to drop off the ballot boxes. "These people had been on duty for 48 and 72 hours. They weren't going to go and sit in a long line, waiting another four or five hours while hundreds of ballot boxes are being signed in and stamped," Kriegler said. "They came in and they said, ‘Here are your boxes. We've done our job.'"
At some counting stations, party agents could not agree on the final result; commissioners went to settle disputes and move the counting process along. When Kriegler arrived at a counting station, "there was a mountain... it must have been three meters high, 20 meters, 30 meters in diameter, of ballot boxes. Nobody had signed them in," he said. With the paperwork missing, and nobody knowing where the boxes came from, Kriegler decided the votes should be counted anyway. "I couldn't see any alternative," he said. "We would have had three million people who had stood for hours in the sun being disenfranchised because our process was defective, because we couldn't handle the volume of material? It could never be justified." Kriegler announced the election results on the afternoon of May 6, the final calculations still being tallied as he prepared to speak. The ANC won the election with 62.2 percent of the vote, making Mandela the country's first black president.
Speaking in 2010, the commissioners offered a variety of explanations for why the elections were successful despite the daunting challenges. Ben van der Ross stressed Kriegler's key role, but also credited the South African people: "It worked because the people of South Africa really wanted it to work." Norman du Plessis stressed the electoral commission's financial independence from outside donors -- thereby giving it flexibility. The commission ran into many problems, but the group was able to identify - and thanks to a one-year 5% tax increase pay for -- solutions, proving crucial to the elections' success. Charles Nupen emphasized the role of the Monitoring Directorate and the party liaison committee, which harnessed conflict-management skills and embedded them in the election administration. The Monitoring Directorate's oversight of the electoral process also gave confidence to the parties that both the process and the final result of the elections could be trusted.
The commission's timetable was short, but like many post-conflict countries, South Africa had to move fast. By demonstrating a high level of commitment, working closely with political parties to tackle problems head on, and seeking unique innovative solutions to last-minute glitches, the commission convinced a nation that it could believe in its founding elections.
Photo by WALTER DHLADHLA/AFP/Getty Images