A former member of the Royal
Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Donald Oliver was named to
the Senate in 1990.
Canada was one of many countries
invited to send observors to the historic elections that took place in South
Africa in the Spring of 1994. One of the Canadian election observors was
Senator Donald Oliver. In this article he describes the situation of the Black
South African, discusses his experience as a UN observer and speculates on the
challenges to be faced by the new government of Mr. Mandela.
South Africa is a country of
contrasts and contradictions. It is a country of stunning physical beauty and
charm and a land of great mineral resources. However, the proceeds from the
exploitation of the resources are basically only shared among whites. There is
a wide, wide gulf between the wages and standard of living of white society
living in South Africa's most modern cities, while blacks live in the outlying
townships or homelands where there are few facilities, no paved roads and
running water. Few are educated.
South Africa has one of the highest
rates of child labour in the world. There are 60,000 children between 8 and 14
working as farm labourers. There are over 2 million black pupils without school
spaces while there are 307,000 empty spaces in white schools. The unemployment
rate for blacks is over 50 percent in several provinces. The health system is
characterized by the same racism as the education system. Virtually five times
as much money is spent on the health care of whites as on blacks.
While over 80 percent of whites are
covered by medical plans - just under 20 percent of blacks are covered. The
number of patients per medical doctor among whites is 330 but among blacks is
12,000. In order to ameliorate the housing shortage for blacks, 330,000 houses
would have to be built each year for the next ten years. And the discrepancies
in quality of life and benefits provided as between whites and blacks just goes
on and on.
The North West Province where I was
deployed during the election covers about 5 percent of South Africa's land mass
and contains approximately 1.8 million people or 4.8 percent of the total South
African population. The mainstay of the economy in this part of South Africa is
mining – gold, platinum, and uranium. This mining activity represents virtually
30 percent of the total mining production of South Africa. The second largest
industry in the North West is agriculture. Two of the main problems in this
province are poverty, and poor health care. Incidences of TB are also high.
Some 1800 people were sent under
the UN mandate to observe the South African election. In addition there were
over 3,000 international observers in the country whose work was coordinated by
the UN. Approximately 21,000,000 were people eligible to vote throughout South
Africa in the election. The country was divided into 374 electoral districts
with 7,000 voting stations. I found they needed more – many more.
The electoral system in South
Africa is based on proportional representation with parties putting up both
national and local lists. Each elector in the April election cast two separate
ballots. One for the national election and one for the provincial election. Of
the 400 seats in Parliament half are elected from the national lists and the
rest from the local. In proportional representation jurisdictions there is a
perception – a feeling – among the people that their individual votes really
count because the more the party gets, the more members it elects. Unlike our
first past the post system where we vote for individual candidates and one's
vote seems insignificant when the winning candidate has a large plurality.
The North West province was divided
into four large areas. In total we had 28 electoral districts, 779 voting
stations and over 1.7 million potential voters. The voting procedures were
slightly different than what we are used to in Canada.
The polls were due to open at 7:00
a.m. and close at 7:00 p.m. There was no general list of eligible electors.
Electors could vote anywhere in South Africa they wished. There were two
election officials at the door of the voting station. Voters were requested to
show voter identification documents. Once inside the centre the voter would
place both hands under the Ultra Violet Light scanner and if the voter's hands
did not show traces of the invisible ink used to mark a voter's hand after he
or she has voted, then the voter would go to the document check table in order
to have the voter identity documents inspected and approved.
Once the documents were approved
then the voter would proceed to the ink-marking table where fingers were
brushed with invisible ink. This procedure was then tested to make sure the
marking took effect and the voter then would go to the Ballot Paper Issue table
– receive a ballot – and then take it to the Ballot Booth, mark it and place it
in the ballot box.
Our job was to observe this whole
procedure and report any incidents which could render the election either not
free or unfair. We were to determine if the necessary staff were at the polling
stations, were the polling stations ready for the voters, did the voting
procedure run smoothly, were there delays and was anyone discouraged from
We had been briefed. We knew what
our responsibilities were but no one could prepare us for the experience we
were to undergo in three days of voting.
The communities in the North West
region are remote and the roads dirty and dusty. Few were paved. There were few
road signs, inadequate maps, no electrical power and no telephones. Life is tough,
sewer or fresh water distribution systems are virtually unheard of in these
The people I met were some of the
poorest people in the country. But they are not poor in spirit and they make
the most of the little they have. They have no washer or dryer to wash
clothing. No dishwater for dishes. No lights for reading, no power for watching
TV or listening to a radio; so when it got dark at the polling stations around
5:30, in the absence of a portable generator that worked, you were left to candlelight.
Thousands of South African Blacks voted in the dark by candlelight.
Apartheid has ghettoized the Black
people of South Africa. They have laboured in mines for low wages and in poor
working conditions or they worked on the white-owned farms. I asked one teenage
girl what she did. She told me she was self-employed. I questioned her further.
She explained she worked on a white farm in the corn fields. She worked from
8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., six days a week with a half hour off for lunch. Her daily
pay was 18 Rand or $8.00 but at the close of each day the white landlord farmer
gave her two ears of corn to take home. Life is tough in South Africa for Black
folk. The inner strength of the Black Africans is a sight to behold.
As we drove to the voting stations
through the unending community townships around 6:30 in the morning, I could
see the women out in the centre of the village pumping water from the well and
filling the pails. Some was for drinking, some was for cooking and most was for
the daily wash. Yes, they used the old fashioned scrub brush and their tired
clothing was carefully and meticulously washed each day and placed in the sun
on a nearby bush or small tree to dry.
We had five voting stations to
observe on day one. When we arrived at 6:50 a.m. on the first morning for
voting in the ordinary poll, we were staggered by the interminable line of
first-time Black electors patiently lined up to exercise their democratic
right. These lines seemed to have had an impact on everyone who went to South
Africa. Both Time and Newsweek in their issues for the second week of May
include pictures of the lines, commenting on the orderliness of the Black
voters and the fact many had brought food to eat, water to drink as it took
hours to process the voters.
But while in these lines, in the
back of their minds, it was clear they were wondering whether the evil forces
of apartheid would somehow prevent them in the end from voting at all. However,
the smiles of satisfaction when they emerged from the voting station
illustrated that they knew apartheid was at an end.
Nelson Mandela assumed the status
of saint, a God, a Saviour, a divine being that could pull Blacks out of the
morass of Apartheid. In one station where I was an observer, one very elderly
gentleman was standing in the polling booth almost 20 seconds after having
received his ballot. He was not moving. Nothing was happening. It was painfully
obvious he was having a problem. He was embarrassed. He could not read or
write. He did not appear to be voting. The presiding officer went over to him.
She asked if the voter needed some assistance in voting. The voter nodded yes.
The appropriate monitors or observers were called over and the elector was
asked in their presence to express his voting preference. After a short lull, a
soft, quiet voice muttered Mandela, Mandela. An X was placed by ANC Mandela and
the ballot paper folded and returned to the elector for deposit in the box. A
broad smile of personal satisfaction covered the voter's face. It was thanksgiving
for a job well and truly done.
This was democracy in action. This
was grass roots politics. This was politics of conviction and strength. This is
what perseverance is all about. This was a graphic demonstration of the healing
power of the vote. Now Black Africans have a chance to be free. Now their vote
is equal to the vote of the white man. Colour was no longer a factor in
political power. Perhaps Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu captured this feeling
best after he left the polling station when he said "I am about 2 inches
taller than when I arrived". Voting is a positive step and by performing
this act, it seemed to signify that Black people, one by one were nailing shut
the coffin of the old regime.
In spite of this great feeling
among the voters I encountered, there were many administrative and logistical
problems in the Townships. Voting stations were not supposed to be more than 4
kilometres apart. That was theory. Some were more than 14. Voting did not start
on time because the ballot papers had not arrived. Some other problems existed
such as: no power to run the UV machines, or there was no seal to properly
close the ballot box; or there were no pencils to mark the ballots with.
Although I was to be just an observer, I did more than that as I attempted to
facilitate those who need to phone to report problems and request electoral
supplies. There were no phones in the voting stations, so when materials did
not arrive, I felt I had to do something more than just stand around and
observe that nothing was happening. So I drove election officials wherever they
needed to go to phone to obtain supplies.
As well as things going wrong,
there was always the threat of violence. Contrary to what the CBC tells us and
as properly reported in the May 9 edition of Time magazine, the problem
in South Africa today in not a Black problem, but it is a white problem. When I
was there, 12 people were murdered – all at the hands of the white extremists,
and NOT as the CBC would have you believe, at the behest of Blacks.
In one of our security briefings in
Klerksdorf and Rustenburg in the North West province, we were told that there
was no real fear of mugging on the street, or other petty crimes. But instead,
because the area was rich in ore and mineral wealth such as gold, diamond and
uranium mines (all owned and white controlled) that the biggest fear and the
security forces' biggest fear was that explosives used in mining operations
would be used to attempt to sabotage the electoral process. We were warned, for
instance, that white extremists might plant bombs at polling stations in the
Black townships to attempt to deter Blacks from voting. And in fact there were
such racial incidents not too far from where we were stationed. A Black
American journalist was badly beaten by white extremists at Rustenburg, our
headquarters for United Nations Observations in the Monipole region. A bomb was
found and fortunately diffused near a polling station. To put this in
perspective geographically, Rustenburg is an historical platinum town that is
situated 130 kilometres from Johannesburg and Pretoria and only 25 minutes from
The voters moved me most of all in
my South Africa experience. North West Province was electric with excitement
and anticipation. After decades and decades of the pain of apartheid, true
democracy would take over.
As a United Nations Observer I had
a questionnaire to complete each day to help the UN make the ultimate
determination whether the elections were free and fair. That was the test.
My partner and I found no evidence
of duress, coercion, oppression, undue influence, threats, intimidation or
blatant attempts to influence the way electors voted or to deter them from
voting as they wished.
But, how can it be said to be fair
when 90 year old people are left standing in scorching heat for 12 hours
waiting for ballot boxes, ballot papers, pencils to mark with, when in most
white areas the materials arrived on time and in ample supply. It is not my
contention that the elections should be voided but it did not strike us as
being fair. It was almost as if the racism which so characterized apartheid was
going to be with South African Blacks right up until the close of voting.
But the election was one of those
remarkable events in history when one can truly say that what is good and right
in our world won out over everything else. Black people spoke through their
ballots. They spoke with conviction and strength. The spoke to end a regime
found to be intolerable by most of the civilized countries of the world. And they
were successful. Good did triumph over evil.
Now, what about the future of South
Africa. It will be important for Nelson Mandela to reach out to his opponents
to solidify his role and to ensure that they all come together in a common
cause. He has certainly done this with the way he has formed his cabinet. Mr.
DeKlerk has been given the position of second deputy and Mangosuthu Buthelezi
has been named Home Secretary and two of his supporters are also in Cabinet.
He must also make it clear to the
international monetary community that he intends to be an exacting steward of
the country's resources and monetary policy. Initially he has done this be
retaining Mr. Derek Keys as finance minister. In his last two years as finance
minister Mr. Keyes proved to be a tough fiscal disciplinarian. He halted the
rise in government spending and reined in the budget deficit.
The other major economic post he
gave to his incumbent, Mr. Chris Stals. Mr. Stals will stay on as governor of
the Reserve Bank or Central Bank when his term ends in July.
But perhaps even more than showing
sound financial discipline, Mr. Mandela must reach out to Blacks all over South
Africa in order to diminish the high expectations they have for this
administration. He must explain to them that the years of doing without, and
being considered to be lesser beings have ended. But it will take time to
realize the tangible benefits.
This is a job which, I submit, Mr.
Mandela is equal to. He realizes that not all white run industries is
necessarily bad by definition and will work with both leaders of industry and
the people of South Africa to start the process which will bring the tangible
What are these benefits that are so
desperately needed. The list is long. Housing seems to be at the top of every
list followed closely by spending on power and water and education, training,
telecommunications and transportation. This will be good for South Africa and
it will be good for Canada as these are areas where our industries have
expertise. It will also increase the knowledge of trades in South Africa among
Blacks and will help the Black unemployment problem.
These needs cannot be denied. Six
million people are unemployed, nine million are without technical skills, 10
million have no access to running water, 23 million have no electricity and
because of the struggle for equality, virtually a whole generation of Blacks
This renewal program will take
years to accomplish but it is achievable. Statements have already been made
that taxes will not be raised and industries will not be nationalized. Projects
will be funded either through budget reallocation or through the international
I am optimistic. Having been given
this great opportunity to be recognized as equal, to end apartheid forever,
Black South Africans will follow the leadership they trust as they move into
the 21st century.
Canada supported the concept of
majority vote and I believe we will benefit from closer ties with the Mandela
government. I believe Canadian industry has the expertise to help in the
rebuilding of South Africa and we should be front and centre among the nations
of the world in committing to help with the enormous task faced by Mr. Mandela.
Mr. Mandela is looking to the
international community for help for as he said: "We trust that you (the
international community) will continue to stand by us as we tackle the
challenges of building peace, prosperity, non-sexism, non-racialism and
democracy. We must act together as united people, for national reconciliation,
for nation building, for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for
all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for