JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africans cast their ballots beginning today in this country's first multiracial election -- a simple act of freedom bought with the blood of thousands that signals the end of the white man's attempt to enforce the destiny of Africa.
Finally, the sound of pencils marking ballots should be heard louder than the blasts of bombs that rocked the march to black independence even as the polls were ready to open, although they foretold a measure of terrorism that could severely disturb this country's future.
The immediate outcome of three days of voting is not in doubt. The election is bound to make Nelson Mandela the country's new president, four years after he emerged from more than a quarter-century in prison for resisting apartheid.
The future is less certain, both in terms of fulfilling the expectations of millions of black South Africans and in the new government's ability to overcome the fierce resistance of those who refuse to accept the inevitability of change.
Though there were widespread protests against racist laws in the 1950s, it was the killing of 69 people during a demonstration in the township of Sharpeville in 1960 that thrust South Africa into the world's consciousness. Mr. Mandela then led the ANC into an armed struggle against apartheid. He was convicted of high treason and began serving a life sentence in 1963.
In 1976, protests that started in schools in Soweto spread across the country. In some ways they did not end until the declaration by President F. W. de Klerk in January 1990 freeing Mr. Mandela and promising negotiations that would lead to all-inclusive elections.
But even as the shackles began to loosen on South Africa's blacks, the battle for political dominance among them emerged. Thousands died in turf battles between those loyal to the ANC and others who pledged allegiance to the Inkatha Freedom Party, fights that lessened in intensity only a week ago when Inkatha's Mangosuthu Buthelezi agreed to join the elections.
Today ballots are being cast by the elderly and hospitalized, those in prisons and those overseas voting at embassies and consulates. Tomorrow, masses of South Africans -- close to 20 million are expected -- will begin two days of voting.
If all goes according to plan, the Independent Electoral Commission -- which has put this incredible undertaking together in less than four months -- expects to announce the results by Saturday night.
"All violence is deplorable, and all deaths are tragic, the death of innocent people all the more so," said Johann Kriegler, chairman of the electoral commission, referring to the bombings on Sunday and yesterday which took 20 lives.
'But that should not make us forget that the real meaning of these days is joy," he said. "There is a joyful anticipation of that which has engaged so many people for so long now that it is about to happen."
But a troubling question still hangs in the air. What will happen when the votes are counted, the new president is in office, the euphoria has passed and millions of South Africa's blacks find that after seeing their impossible dream of a non-racial democracy come true, the work has really just begun?
Indeed, one fear often voiced is that Mr. Mandela's ANC has raised the expectations of its supporters to unrealistic levels, that the disappointment that will follow could lead the country into chaos.
But Cyril Ramaphosa, general secretary of the ANC, disagreed. "Yes, our people do have expectations," he said. "But they are understandable expectations. They have lived in a condition of degradation and suffered immensely over the years.
"They have not even had basic facilities, running water, electricity. There is nothing wrong in people expecting these things, a water tap, electricity, a roof over their heads. These are not outrageous expectations.
"We must find the resources to meet these expectations or otherwise the struggle of our people has been in vain."
Many South African whites seem to enjoy spreading urban legends of maids convinced they will get their employer's house the day after the election, or gardeners who plan to drive off in the employer's Mercedes. But interviews with blacks in townships and rural communities almost always reveal the same basic list of what is expected of the new government: for roads to be paved, for schools to be repaired, more and better housing.
Laurence Schlemmer of the Human Science Research Council, who has done extensive polling for the past several months, said he does not expect widespread disappointment even if the government is slow to deliver on its promises.
That is because his polls show that, more than anything else, the majority of South Africans expect this election to deliver "non-material expectations."
"They expect to be treated with dignity. Their status as a human being, as a South African, is non-negotiable," he said. "Quite frankly, I feel that this elections is more about honor and status than it is about houses and jobs.
"I think for that reason, with necessary symbolism and necessary recognition of the importance of these issues to a majority of South Africans, the government ends up with quite a while before it has to deliver on all the material things. I think they've got three years."
How any new government will deliver in three, or even before the next election in five years, is the difficult question. The African continent is filled with the shells of shattered economies that did not come close to meeting the widespread expectations following the end of colonialism.
Most of the independence movements in African colonies were backed by the Soviet Union and other communist countries, so many of their economies followed state-controlled, socialist models.
The ANC received that backing, too, but now that the old patron no longer exists, it has taken pains to reassure South Africa's white-dominated business establishment, and the world's financial organizations, that it will not follow a similar path.
It has laid out its economic proposals in a document called the Reconstruction and Development Plan, which dangles the carrot unfettered free markets in front of white-dominated business, while holding the stick of regulation and even nationalization if business does not help meet the needs of the country's impoverished millions.
South Africa is also different from other African countries in that it was not purely a colony. Many of the whites came here to stay, beginning with Jan Van Riebeck in 1652, who set up a station to replenish Dutch boats plying the spice route.
It was the white Afrikaners, descendants of those first Dutch settlers, who actually led South Africa's first independence movement, fighting against the British colonialists.
So, unlike whites in European colonies, who fled in droves when independence came, most South African whites have no intention of abandoning the First World infrastructure they have created next to the Third World poverty, even as the racist structures of apartheid -- the last survivor of this century's great exercises in social engineering -- are dismantled.
The structure of the new government was designed to allay the fears, not only of whites, but also of other racial minorities that their interests would be lost amid the demands of the black majority which makes up 75 percent of South Africa's population of 40 million.
It is termed a government of national unity and will exist for five years under a constitution negotiated by most of the parties participating in the election.
The new 400-seat Parliament will be filled according to the percentage of votes each party gets. If the ANC, for instance, gets 50 percent, it gets 200 seats filled by people whose names are on published lists.
Any party with more than 5 percent of the vote gets a seat in the Cabinet; more than 20 percent gets a vice presidency. In practice, it is expected that Mr. Mandela will be president, Mr. Ramaphosa one of his vice presidents and Mr. de Klerk the other.
The new Parliament will be charged with writing the country's permanent constitution, which it must pass by a two-thirds majority. When the campaign began in January, it appeared that the ANC might get that many seats, effectively enabling it to dictate the new constitution. Lately, though, this seems less certain.
Electoral law forbids publishing any poll for the three weeks before the election, but the last polls showed a definite trend away from the ANC, with the strength of Mr. de Klerk's National Party growing. Based on his most recent data, Mr. Schlemmer predicts that the ANC will get 57 percent of the vote to the National Party's 26 percent.
His figures put Mr. Buthelezi's Zulu-based Inkatha party in third place with around 6 percent while the remaining 11 percent will be split among the white right-wing Freedom Front, the traditionally liberal Democratic Party, and the more radical black Pan Africanist Congress.
Moreover, the ANC is not expected to make a clean sweep of the nine regional governments. The National Party should easily win the Western Cape, the Cape Town area, on the strength of its popularity among the so-called "colored" voters.
That party is also considered a favorite in the rural Northern Cape and has an outside chance of taking the urban region that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria.
In KwaZulu/Natal, the stronghold of Inkatha, that party's late entry into the race means that the ANC may not get an outright majority, leaving open the possibility that the region could be run by an Inkatha/National Party coalition.
But from the beginning, this election has not been about who is going to win. Such is the strength of the ANC. It is generally acknowledged that Mr. Mandela, with his combination of unparalleled sacrifice for the struggle and benign lack of bitterness about his suffering, is the only person who could possibly lead the country after this election.
Even without the suspense that usually drives political drama, this election has dominated South Africa's consciousness.
Television political advertising is banned, but many ads are on the radio. Posters sprouted like weeds on every available surface. And television has been filled with spots advertising the election itself, voter education, peace, good will and various other positive sentiments.
Dozens of products have been using an election theme to sell their wares on all media. A mattress company's ad has a pseudo-TV newscaster standing outside the government buildings, saying that all major political parties agree on the need for a good night's sleep.
A radio ad says: "Now is the time for all South Africans to make an unbiased decision and vote for . . . [Mooo]"
Even the incessant peace campaign comes in for a bit of parody by a grilled chicken chain. On a bumper sticker, the blue and white twin doves in the peace logo are replaced by chickens. "Pieces in your hands," the text reads.
A NEW SOUTH AFRICA
WHAT'S AT STAKE:
The main issue is the end of white-minority rule. The vote is expected to put the African National Congress in power. Voters will choose a new Parliament and nine provincial legislatures, which will sit for five years. A party must win .25 percent of the vote to gain a seat in Parliament. For a seat in the Cabinet, a party must win 5 percent of the vote. The new Parliament will elect the president, expected to be Nelson Mandela.
* The African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela.
* The National Party, led by President F.W. de Klerk.
* The Inkatha Freedom Party, led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
* Pan Africanist Congress, led by Clarence Makwetu.
* Freedom Front, led by Constand Viljoen.
* Democratic Party, led by Zach de Beer.
A SOUTH AFRICAN CHRONOLOGY
Before the first colonists arrived, Southern Africa was populated by a mixed population of hunter-gatherers known as San, pastoral herdsmen known as Khoikhoi and, predominantly, Bantu-speaking farmer-herdsmen, the forebears of most modern South Africans.
1652 -- Jan van Riebeeck lands on the Cape Peninsula commanding an expedition for the Dutch East India Co.
1770-1870 -- Dutch settlers and the British who followed move east and make war first on the Xhosa, then on the Zulus.
1836-1854 -- The Afrikaner Great Trek. Unhappy under British rule of the cape, Africanized descendants of the Dutch head east and north in wagon trains.
1899-1902 -- Boer War, Afrikaners vs. British. The British win but at a huge cost in lives.
1912 -- The African National Congress is formed.
1948 -- The National Party wins elections and sets out to implement apartheid.
March 21, 1960 -- Sharpeville massacre. Police kill 69 protesters. Government bans the ANC and other groups, which in turn adopt armed struggle.
1976 -- Soweto student uprising, beginning with protest against the required study of Afrikaans.
1984 -- Climactic era of protest begins with objection to a tricameral parliament with houses for Indians and coloreds but not blacks.
May 16, 1986 -- Law and Order Minister Hendrik Coetsee visits Nelson Mandela in jail. Mr. Mandela proposes regular talks, which begin secretly in July and set the stage for later meetings.
Feb 2, 1990 -- New President F. W. de Klerk announces he is releasing Mr. Mandela, lifting the ban on anti-apartheid groups and opening a dialogue. Mr. Mandela walks free nine days later.
March 17, 1992 -- Mr. de Klerk handily wins a whites-only referendum on his reforms.
June 3, 1993 -- Agreement on a date for the first free elections gives negotiators a deadline.
Nov. 17 -- Negotiators agree on how the first post-apartheid government will work.
April 19, 1994 -- Inkatha ends potentially violent election boycott with a week to go before the vote.
April 26-28 -- Elections.
NB May 6 -- The new National Assembly is to convene in Cape Town.