KATUTURA, Namibia — A black tailor named Helmut Hamwaama awoke before dawn Tuesday, eager for his first glimpse of one-man, one-vote democracy. But when he arrived at his local polling station in this township, the line of like-minded men in work clothes and women carrying babies already stretched half a mile down the dusty road.
After a six-hour wait, Hamwaama presented his registration card to U.N. officials. His fingertips were dipped in fluorescent ink, to guard against double-voting, and he took a ballot into a wooden booth to mark his "X" beside one of 10 political parties. When he dropped the ballot into a sealed metal box, he smiled.
"We've lived under oppression since the day we were born," said Hamwaama, 36. "But today, \o7 we \f7 will decide who will lead us."
For whom did he vote? "That's my secret," he said.
Across a vast African desert territory more than twice the size of California, tens of thousands of Namibians waited outside in the hot sun of a Southern Hemisphere summer to do something the West often takes for granted--to cast a secret ballot in a multi-party election. The parties they select will end 74 years of South African rule and, in a matter of weeks, write a constitution for the world's newest independent nation.
Some polls stayed open hours past the scheduled 7 p.m. closing time to accommodate the surprisingly large crowds that gathered on the first day of the five-day election. As Hamwaama explained: "When you decide to do something important, you cannot wait."
State-run television reported that a baby was killed and others injured in crowding at polls in rural northeastern Namibia. But, for the most part, the day was quiet, free of the violent political confrontations some had feared.
More than 350 polling stations were open, from the Kalahari Desert land of the Bushmen to the coastal villages of the German-descended settlers. One group of poll workers got lost in the rugged brush of the north, but were rescued by a U.N. helicopter and guided to their destination.
"We're in the field and the system seems to be working very well," said John Lee Truman, director of the U.N. election team. The U.N. operation, with 7,000 troops, police and election workers from Costa Rica to the Congo, is the largest peacekeeping mission ever undertaken.
Each polling station was clogged Tuesday with diplomats, interpreters, U.N. monitors, journalists, South African administration officials, and representatives from each of the 10 political parties contesting the election. After the approximately 700,000 total votes are counted next week, and the election certified as "free and fair" by the United Nations, a 72-member body of Namibians will be seated to chart the future. Independence is expected to be formally declared by April 1, 1990.
"We are finally burying apartheid colonialism," declared Sam Nujoma, leader of the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), as he cast his ballot in Katutura, a community near Windhoek, capital of Namibia. SWAPO, which fought a 23-year-long bush war for independence from South Africa, is heavily favored to win a majority here, although perhaps not the two-thirds necessary to author the new constitution.
More than 35,000 Namibian exiles, including Nujoma and other SWAPO fighters, have returned to Namibia since June to participate in the elections. Also among the voters are 10,000 white South Africans, who are eligible to cast ballots under rules allowing anyone born in Namibia, with Namibian-born parents, or with four years' residence.
"It's a country we love and we'd hate to see it go to the dogs," said Anton Ferreira, a 24-year-old Namibia-born South African, who drove 14 hours from his home in Cape Town to vote.
Whites account for only about 80,000 of Namibia's 1.3 million people, and most are ranchers on vast tracts of scenic, near-desert land or businessmen in small towns. Almost all of the country's blacks, representing a dozen ethnic groups, are cattle herders or work in white-owned mines or white-owned farms. More than a dozen languages are spoken, but the primary ones are English and Afrikaans, the tongue of Dutch-descended white Afrikaners.
"This day is the reason we came to South-West," said Rosemary Walden, using the term still favored by white South Africans to describe the Pretoria-ruled territory.
Walden, a 37-year-old owner of a women's boutique, moved to Windhoek 11 years ago with her husband, a geologist, to escape the racial tension of South Africa. Although opposed to SWAPO, Walden sat in line with hundreds of black SWAPO supporters on Tuesday--and shared an umbrella dyed in SWAPO colors.
"There're bound to be teething problems with independence, but we're here to stay," Walden added.