South Africans go to the polls on Wednesday for their third democratic elections. The campaign has been relatively peaceful, and election officials are confident that the voting will be the same. Analysts believe South Africa's democracy has matured beyond the violence that plagued its transition from apartheid 10 years ago.
South African police and election officials are prepared for the worst, but nobody is expecting much trouble in Wednesday's general election. Police spokesman Bala Naidoo says 20,000 police officers are deployed in his province of Kwazulu-Natal alone, concentrating on areas where there have been trouble in the past. "Well at this stage, I think our expectation is that the election is going to be very, very peaceful," he said. "And we don't anticipate any major problems because I think we have now more or less learned from our experiences, which contributed to more thorough planning for the elections."
Director Naidoo says there will be at least two police officers at every polling station on Wednesday, and they are also getting help from the army. "Every area will have some visible policing so that at the end of the day people are free and will not be subjected to intimidation when they are going out to the polling booth," he added.
The campaign period this year has been largely free of violence, and political parties have tended to handle their disputes with words rather than fists or weapons. That is a stark contrast to the country's first democratic election in 1994, when thousands of people were killed in political unrest in the months leading up to the poll. A leading member of parliament for the ruling African National Congress, Pallo Jordan, recalled those elections. "The country was engulfed in pessimism in 1994," he said. "This time of the year in 1994, everyone was a little bit nervous about what's going to happen, whether we are going to have a bloody civil war, whether we are going to have an uprising by the ultra-right. None of those things happened."
Over the past 10 years, analysts say South Africa's democracy has matured. The uncertainty and fear that pervaded a decade ago has largely disappeared, making way for a sort of normality that still amazes those who remember the old days, but it has been a gradual process. The last election in 1999 was less troubled than 1994, but there were still a number of political killings. More importantly, there was still a fear that things could go wrong.
Political analyst Zubeida Jaffer of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation recalls the 1999 vote, when she temporarily relocated from Cape Town to Johannesburg to coordinate election coverage for the country's largest chain of newspapers. She and her colleagues were expecting trouble, but it never materialized - at least not on a scale approaching that of 1994. "We went up there six weeks before the time, and from one week to the next we were all waiting for something," she said. "You know, when is the election happening? And right up until probably the last week, when there was a kind of stir, other than that it was exceptionally, exceptionally normal."
This year, the fear of real unrest is largely gone. Police are preparing for the worst just in case, but most people are finally allowing themselves to believe that peace and stability are here to stay.
In fact, things are expected to be so normal that a number of international organizations, such as the Commonwealth and the European Union, have not even sent observers to monitor the poll. They believe South Africa's democracy has matured enough that their presence is no longer needed.
There will be some international observers for the election, mainly from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). One reason SADC is coming is to learn from South Africa's example.