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AP Was There: Black South Africans get the vote

FILE - In this April 27, 1994, file photo, people queue at a primary school to cast their votes at a polling station in Soweto, South Africa, as the country went to the polls in the country's first all race elections. Africa National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela went on to become the country's first black president after his party won the vote. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell. File)

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — This story was first published on April 26, 1994 when AP journalist John Daniszewski reported on South Africa’s first all-race election. We are reprinting the story now to mark the 25th anniversary of the vote and the end of the system of racial discrimination known as apartheid.

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Black South Africans made history Tuesday, voting by the tens of thousands to take control of their country for the first time since whites arrived 342 years ago.

Refusing to be cowed by a wave of deadly bombings, the elderly and infirm came in droves from squatter settlements and thatched villages to mark a simple cross on a piece of paper.

Some literally crawled and others were pushed to the polls in wheelbarrows. Many broke down in tears after making their mark.

“We need freedom,” said 72-year-old Florence Ndimangele, voting with other elderly people near Cape Town. “We are tired of being slaves.”

Underscoring the epic change, a new South African flag was raised at midnight in ceremonies at nine regional capitals after the old flag that many blacks viewed as a symbol of white rule was lowered.

The anthem of the anti-apartheid movement, “God Bless Africa,” was sung for the first time as one of the two official national anthems, along with “Die Stem” (The Call), a hymn of the Afrikaners whose five-decade rule is about to end.

Despite late-arriving ballots and lines so long in some places that people collapsed, the mood among blacks casting the first vote of their lives was jubilant.

Tuesday’s voting was reserved for the aged, invalids, people in hospitals and the military. General voting begins Wednesday, when African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela and President F.W. de Klerk will cast their ballots.

“Today marks the dawn of our freedom,” Mandela said.

For Gladys Shabalala, a 62-year-old retired nurse voting near Durban, it was a day of immeasurable significance.

“There have been so many white elections,” she said. “I used to pass the posters on the road and dream about whether I would be able to vote. That’s why I came so early, to see if this is really happening.”

Her seven daughters, she said, will see “a real new South Africa.”

After two days of bombings by suspected right-wingers that killed 21 people and injured more than 150, no major violence was reported Tuesday. Election officials said they were generally pleased with the voting, despite some glitches.

In one of the few violent incidents, police guarding a polling station in the northern Orange Free State returned fire after assailants cut power to the building and sprayed gunfire that damaged doors and windows. Police said the attackers escaped in a vehicle.

Ballot counting from the three-day election begin Friday. Preliminary results are expected about noon Friday and final results were expected Saturday. An estimated 23 million South Africans of all races were eligible to vote.

The heavy turnout was a striking repudiation of the bomb-throwers, as blacks went out of their way to show they would not be denied their moment of glory.

“I can’t wait to vote,” said 29-year-old David Maimola, speaking from a hospital bed where he is recovering from injuries sustained in a bomb blast Sunday.

“After what has happened to me … I want a new government.”

The election, set to conclude Thursday night, will select a national assembly and nine provincial assemblies. The ANC is expected to win about 60 percent of the vote. Second place should go to de Klerk’s National Party, which implemented apartheid to separate the races, then dismantled it under growing pressure at home and abroad.

The 75-year-old Mandela, who struggled all his life against apartheid and spent 27 years in prison, is expected to be sworn in as president of South Africa’s first democratic government on May 10. He will govern a deeply divided country, with unemployment and illiteracy higher than 50 percent among blacks.

The vote brings to a close an era in which 5 million whites dominated 35 million blacks, browns and Asians was coming to a close.

“It’s the end of an epoch,” said Adeline Barkhuizen, 66, who lives on a farm outside Pretoria. “It will be difficult for the Afrikaner people.”

Many whites said they shared the blacks’ joy. “I never thought I would see the day when I would wish I was a black person,” enthused one white caller to a talk-radio station.

Waits of four or more hours to vote were not uncommon. At Empilweni Hospital in Port Elizabeth, sick and elderly voters collapsed in the hot sun.

Some of the most poignant scenes were in remote areas such as Usuthu in Natal province, where hundreds of elderly and crippled voters took shelter under thorn trees as voting in the Zulu homeland got off to a chaotic start.

Many had hobbled through the hills on crutches. Some came in wheelbarrows pushed by relatives and others were dropped off by trucks and literally crawled into the line, eager to vote. They were disappointed to find ballots had not yet arrived.

Usuthu’s head teacher, Margaret Zungu, said elderly Zulu voters began gathering well before dawn.

“This is the first time they will vote. They’ve waited for this day. They’re not going to be unhappy to wait a little longer.”

Foreign observers were overwhelmed by the determination of the voters.

“The infirm are being carried into the booths,” said Margarete Delbet of France. “It’s a moving celebration of independence, rather than the act of voting.”

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