Grass-roots account

2010-12-15 00:00

THERE can hardly be anyone better placed to write the story of South Africa’s first democratic election than Peter Harris, who was head of the monitoring division of the Independent Electoral Commission. His job was to watch not just the proceedings, but also the officials responsible.

The reader is struck by the sheer energy, imagination and initiative that enabled the elections to take place against formidable odds. Herculean efforts were made at short notice to set up communications systems and service polling stations.

But where exactly was the conspiracy of Harris’s subtitle?

The Third Boer War of Liberation was no more than the fatal blundering of a few far right-wing fantasists. Their chance of subverting an army and police force traditionally loyal to the state was negligible.

Inkatha shrewdly employed the threatening brinkmanship at which it was then so adept, to keep a regional party in the news.

The greatest danger to the election turned out to be a lack of administrative capacity to deal with mundane supply issues. This needed no conspiracy as we know all too well from the following 16 years.

Then there was the hacker who disabled the electronic count. No one has ever been identified. In a sense this did not matter as the election was riddled with irregularities and its finer details negotiated.

Harris writes from a personal perspective, recording his feelings and interweaving the narrative carefully with stories of family life. The definitive account with its historical analysis has yet to appear. For the time being this is a good read that will trigger many memories.

But it is a pity that Harris was not dissuaded from overusing direct speech. It, and a smattering of expletives, cannot possibly be remembered with accuracy after all this time and simply adds a rather contrived air to an absorbing story. Christopher Merrett


Birth: The Conspiracy to Stop the ’94 Election

Peter Harris


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