Birth: The Conspiracy to Stop the 1994 Election by Peter Harris (Umuzi)
I accepted the invitation to review this book with some trepidation. The last time I reviewed a book for the Mail & Guardian, I considered that it had failed manifestly to fulfil its promise and therefore deserved no more than a qualified recommendation.
It promptly went on to win the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for non-fiction. I remain uncertain about whether that reflects adversely on the selection committee or on my judgment.
My second reservation turns on the theme of Peter Harris’s new book, Birth. The work is an account of the first democratic election held in South Africa during 1994. Harris was the head of the monitoring division of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), which was charged with organising these elections.
During the Codesa negotiations I was part of the team that drafted both the Electoral Act and the legislation that constituted the IEC. That legislation created the road map for the conduct of the 1994 elections. Even at the time of drafting it was clear that the task with which the IEC had been enjoined would prove almost impossible and this conclusion was reached from “a vantage point” of a drafter possessed only of a theoretical framework for the conduct of a democratic election.
Recall that the IEC’s task was to organise an election within a period of a few months. That April 27 1994 was to be the date was cast in political stone. It was expected that there would be some 22.7-million voters, 72% of whom had never previously voted in an election.
There were no voters’ rolls for the vast majority of the South African population and hence the enabling legislation sought to accommodate this problem by way of a simple requirement that any person could vote who had the requisite identity document. But many South Africans did not have any identity documents.
Magnitude of the task
The IEC was thus mandated to provide applicants with temporary voting cards. By the last day of voting, some 3,5-million of these cards had been issued, of which 1,5-million were issued during the period of the election. Even these figures provide a luminous illustration of the sheer magnitude of the task that confronted the IEC.
In January 1994 the chair of the IEC, Judge Johan Kriegler, said: “This is not going to be [a] 12-cylinder turbo-charged Rolls Royce election — this is going to be a people’s election; an African election.” (IEC: An End to Waiting, Page 44)
There have been a number of accounts of the election (for example, Patti Waldmeir’s The Anatomy of a Miracle and the IEC’s own account called An End to Waiting. But Harris takes us inside the IEC and provides a dramatic account of the sheer weight of problems that confronted the IEC in the holding of peaceful elections.
A significant portion of the book provides a graphic account of the role of right-wing forces: the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) and the broader group called the Volksfront. When Lucas Mangope, president of the so-called Republic of Bophut-hatswana, requested assistance from the Volksfront’s executive to stem the political resistance experienced in the homeland, South Africa literally held its breath. General Constand Viljoen contacted General George Meiring, head of the South African Defence Force (SADF), to inform him that Volksfront commandos were moving into Bophuthatswana.
The possibility of civil war loomed large. As the book reveals, it was the inability of the AWB to adhere to the instructions of Viljoen that proved to be a crucial turning point in events leading up to the election. When the AWB who, unlike the SADF-trained Volksfront commandos, were but racist desperados, rampaged into the homeland, the more militarily dangerous elements of the Volksfront under Viljoen refused to cooperate.
Even more critical were the events that followed involving Constable Menyatsoe of the Bophuthatswana police. It was he who fired at an old Mercedes-Benz, causing the car to come to a shuddering stop. He then executed, in front of the world’s television cameras, three senior members of the AWB: Alwyn Wolfaardt, Jacobus Uys and Nicholaas Fourie.
The end is near
Harris’s account of these events is gripping but I cannot help but feel that he fails to convey the profound effect on vicious right-wing elements who watched these executions on national television and finally realised that the days of white supremacy were coming to an end, either by way of the election or violently.
At the same time the IEC had to confront the significant problem of Inkatha’s reluctance to participate in the election. In this process of political horse-trading between the IFP’s Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the ANC and the National Party, the IEC was almost powerless. The book provides an interesting account of Kriegler’s own attempt to persuade the legislative assembly of KwaZulu to take part in the election.
As Harris writes: “As Kriegler begins he is interrupted but he soldiers on trying to make his point that at least the election should be allowed to happen. Again he is drowned out by the booing of the delegates. He tries in vain to make his point — the Inkatha leadership does nothing to protect Kriegler as he struggles on. It was a calculated show of force, a blatant exhibition of contempt of the IEC and its leader.”
Inkatha finally joined the election some six days prior to its commencement, which only added to the weight of logistical problems. But for all the tension, Harris also reflects on the humour that occasionally lightened their load. One example involves the now Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa, Dikgang Moseneke who, justly, is hailed by Harris as one of the heroes of the IEC’s success, and Buthelezi.
It appears that Buthelezi had complained about the sticker that was made for the Inkatha Freedom Party, which was to be attached to the ballot paper. Buthelezi complained to Moseneke that: “My head looks like a little tokoloshe all squashed up. How will people vote for me if I look like a tokoloshe? I’m thinking of withdrawing.”
Moseneke replied: “I think your head just looks that way because the sticker is very narrow and that gives it the effect that you talk of but I also think that it is just this batch of stickers. We will see if we can fix it on the other batches by printing a broader sticker which will give your head more space.”
‘Prisoner of the extraordinary’
The book is full of these anecdotes, which provide insight into the real threats that confronted South Africa as it moved unsteadily towards its first democratic election. About this Harris writes with eloquence and grace and, as I have noted, with dramatic flair and some humour. But this book is partly a prisoner of the extraordinary and justified success of his first book, In a Different Time, which so deservedly won the Paton award.
It is almost as if, having found a superb recipe for non-fiction in the first book, Harris is determined to compress the events of the election into the same framework. Readers will recall that the first book ran the narrative of a trial in sequence with a construction of a bomb by the dark forces of apartheid.
Now Harris attempts in part to run the right-wing conspiracy to prevent the 1994 election with the difficulties encountered by IEC. Frankly, the conceit does not work and, in any event, it runs out of steam about halfway through the book.
In turn the idea of a conspiracy to stop the election is lost in the latter part of the second half of the book, which save for some description of the considerable problems posed by Inkatha’s opposition to an election and its threats of further violence, is mostly taken up with the IEC’s problems of running a campaign.
Overall the arguments made in the book read as a whole hardly justify the title of a coherent conspiracy to subvert the election. Harris documents the threats from the extreme right, which finally disappeared for reasons hardly canvassed in depth which in turn makes the title a rather inaccurate description of the book.
In particular, the intriguing question that may have been more suggestive of a sophisticated plot or conspiracy, namely who broke into the IEC’s computer system to alter the results of the voting, has never been answered.
There is also a significant absence of critique of the election and its conduct. Although Birth is a superbly crafted book, a friend of mine, who is one of the most perceptive academics in the country, impressed upon me that in it the world is divided into binary oppositions between those who are evil and those who are all good. In short, the moral and political problems raised out of the events documented by In A Different Time are simply glossed over.
Whatever the merits of this critique, Birth exhibits a marked absence of explanation. For example, the right-wing threat receives careful description but there is little analysis of why these elements failed, save for the rather cryptic passage: “Morale is low.
The heady days of early April have gone. Weighing heavily on them is the failure of the men in the defence force to defect with their weapons and equipment. The police have betrayed them and infiltrated their ranks and have arrested some members.”
To an extent this compels a return to an earlier point: the extent of the effect of the execution in Bophuthatswana and the role of Viljoen.
Similarly, the reader will search in vain for criticism of the IEC’s performance. Even the IEC’s own report of the election documents 165 “no-go” areas in South Africa. The implications for political harassment and intolerance are important not only for this election but also for the possibility of deliberative democracy going forward.
On occasion it appears to me that there are lost opportunities for further analysis. When the counting stopped after the termination of the election, only to be resumed some days later, the nation learned that the ANC had garnered 62,5% of the vote and the IFP 10,5%.
Many thought that a deal had been struck during this interruption to ensure that the ANC got below a two-thirds majority, and that the IFP would win a significant percentage of the vote. Harris informs us that boxes of votes had come from areas that were Inkatha-controlled.
It was clear that the votes were fraudulent. Inkatha threatened to pull out if these votes were excluded. Pravin Gordhan, then a senior leader of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal and now minister of finance, consulted ANC representatives.
Within 15 minutes he instructed that the disputed boxes could be included. As Harris notes: “This was an extraordinary strategic intervention by Gordhan which allowed the count to continue in circumstances where many would have been happy to see it stall and fail thereby discounting the election in the province.”
If there was a broader strategy in all of this to ensure stability after the election, this book provides few answers.
Reading the book as a whole and, notwithstanding its attempt all too often to uncritically document the work of the IEC (how many times is it necessary to tell the reader that key IEC officials had blood-shot eyes?), one is struck by the extent of the country’s achievement in the conduct of this election.
When faced with a clear target such as an election or the World Cup, this country can perform miracles. Absent a clarity of vision, we lapse, at best, into stasis or, even worse, into acceptance of mediocrity.
Reading this book may provide some indication as to how this country can pull off further miracles; in particular the implementation of our constitutional vision, if only leadership can articulate a clear target.
In summary, Harris has given us a fascinating insider’s account of the critical months leading up to our first democratic election.
If I judge this book to be only a qualified success, because of its anecdotal content and absence of critique that the data required, it is because of the promise of the first book — and it is about time that we stop breathlessly acclaiming works that do not entirely achieve their own objective.