DEMOCRACY MAY BE FACING A DIFFICULT BIRTH

By MICHAEL O. ALLEN and GENE MUSTAIN, Daily News Staff Writers | Sunday, April 24, 1994

JOHANNESBURG—After living much of her life with the perverse indignities of apartheid, voting in South Africa’s historic first all-race elections this week comes down to one thing for Louisa Rakale:

“I’ll vote if somebody comes to take me to the polling station,” the 85-year-old Soweto grandmother said.

By the reckoning of racial separation laws that governed their lives, Rakale and her sisters Jeanie Khali, 86, and Alsie Makgamele, 87, were born “colored” to a white (Scottish) man and a black (Xhosa) woman.

They could still vote, but when they married black men and became “black,” they lost that right and all the other rights white South Africans had denied blacks and reserved for themselves.

For the 23 million South Africans expected to vote this week, the act of casting ballots means overcoming obstacles ranging from the simple—like access to polling stations—to the difficult, such as overcoming the fear of voting the “wrong” and having the wrong person find out about it.

While great measures are being taken to assure the privacy of voters, South Africans know too well that their country has no history of majority rule, or culture of tolerance for minority viewpoints.

Until the Inkatha Freedom Party belatedly joined the election process last week, for instance, showing interest in politics in the KwaZulu/Natal province virtually meant courting death. More than 700 people have been killed in the province in election-related violence in the last seven weeks.

“This is going to be a very diffcult birth because this is so very new to us,” said brewery manager Patrick Lebethe. “Unlike most countries that go through this exercise, we have a frighteningly high rate of illiteracy, and that always means trouble.”

Because at least 50% of South Africa’s 38 million citizens live in rural areas and 80% of those are illiterate, many non-partisan, non-profit organizations involved in voter education have focused on the countryside.

South Africa Safe Elections, an organization formed last year in New York, after former presidential speechwriter Ted Sorenson met with African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, has given $6 million to 50 voter-education projects across the country.

The program teaches more than the mechanics of voting, according to Loren Braithwaite, a Manhattan lawyer who runs the program here.

Its main focus has been on helping rural blacks—highly politicized and familiar with the culture of protest, mass-action rallies and boycotts, but largely ignorant of electioneering—overcome fears of intimidation.

This is not a message that goes down easily in this highly patriarchal society, especially for some men who insist their wives must vote for the same candidate they support.

Putting down rumors and controlling the damage of dirty tricks are also important. Some white farmers, for instance, misled workers by telling them to mark “X” next to the political party that they do not want.