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Evidence of Abuses Surfaces In Wake of S. Africa Elections

By Bob Drogin
Los Angeles Times
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

Whoever stuffed the ballot boxes in the Zulu strongholds of northern Natal last week did a good job - too good perhaps.

"There were sealed ballot boxes in which there were 3,000 odd votes, and all the ballots were neatly stacked up inside," said John Wills, a lawyer and election observer in Empangeni. "It's physically impossible if people are voting one by one."

Wills also found "widespread indications" of voters casting ballots under the legal age of 18, and scores of full ballot boxes "coming from polling stations that didn't officially exist," he said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Growing evidence of other polling abuses, compounded by computer sabotage, communications snafus and mind-boggling confusion, have begun to tarnish the golden glow of South Africa's historic all-race election. Six days after the counting began, there are still no certified results to back African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela's claim of victory Monday as the nation's first black president.

Instead, counting and reporting of returns - which stopped for 32 hours Tuesday and Wednesday - stalled again all day Thursday as outside auditors and computer experts swarmed into offices of the Indepedent Electoral Commission in hopes of sorting out what increasingly appears a case of poor planning, chaotic administration and inadequate safeguards.

Johann Kriegler, the electoral commission chairman, told reporters Wednesday that someone had tampered with the computer program used to tabulate the vote totals, causing what he called a "trivial difference" in tallies.

But he said a fallback "manual system" - hand-written accounting books used at each counting station - would provide an accurate count.

"Extraordinary measures have been taken to ensure the integrity of the results from the manual system are as trustworthy as human precautions can make them," he said.

They were not good enough. The manual system turned out to be riddled with mistakes from people filling out forms incorrectly, electoral commission spokeswoman Nikki Moore said Thursday. "They discovered discrepancies that didn't make sense and couldn't be explained," she said. "So everything ground to a halt again."

Moore said she was convinced the problem was not deliberate fraud, but "monumental incompetence" within her own organization. And she accused top electoral commission officials of "trying to cover up" the problems by refusing to provide accurate information. "Now there's so much rumor and speculation," she complained. "I stopped talking to the press because even I didn't believe the IEC."

No one here doubts that Mandela's ANC has won. The question is by how much and where.

The latest tallies, released late Thursday and based on 72 percent of the estimated 23 million votes cast, pushed the ANC landslide to 64.7 percent of the total.

That means the ANC is within reach of its goal of winning two-thirds of the vote, enough for a veto-proof majority to rewrite the interim constitution without compromising with other parties in the new coalition government. Even Mandela has said he is uneasy about a potential "tyranny of the majority."

Outgoing president Frederik W. de Klerk's National Party had fallen to 20.6 percent of the vote. Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party had 8.1 percent, while the Freedom Front, which demands a separate white homeland, was in fourth place with 2.3 percent.

Kriegler said he was confident the electoral commission will finish counting and certify the results by Monday night, the legal deadline. Much rides on the timetable, because the new National Assembly must convene Monday to formally elect Mandela president. He is due to be inaugurated the next day in ceremonies in Pretoria before scores of international dignitaries and more than 100,000 South Africans.