As South Africa's black majority prepares to cast its first national vote, hundreds of American lawyers, academics, students, church workers, labor officials and civil rights activists are converging on the former pariah nation to help it give birth to democracy.
Teams of Americans already have been in South Africa for several months providing political and voter education to local groups charged with mobilizing the electorate in a country where the 28-million blacks, half of them illiterate, have never been allowed to vote for Parliament or president.
As the April 26 start of balloting approaches, about 500 Americans _ and perhaps many more _ will descend on South Africa as election observers to help ensure that the vote is as free and fair as the climate of violence and political intimidation will allow.
"Generally, people in this country feel that foreign observers will have a positive impact on the process," said Gay McDougall, the only American on the International Election Commission in South Africa, which is administering the elections and enforcing voting regulations. McDougall briefed several observer organizations this week on the logistics and dangers of their mission.
"The sense that the international community has come to watch this process is going to give some comfort, some sense of the importance of the event, which might help voters brace what otherwise might be a tricky situation for them," she said. "I do think outside observers also will help to mitigate the violence to some degree."
Much of the work that Americans and others are doing is aimed at helping South Africans overcome their ignorance of electoral politics as well as their fears of being tricked or intimidated by groups that are opposed either to the voting or to the virtual certainty of a victory for the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela, who would replace Frederik de Klerk of the National Party as president.
In a voter education session outside Cape Town last year, Natasha Reid, 22, a Harvard University graduate, saw fear and suspicion firsthand when she talked with a group of elderly men.
"One of the things was, in the villages, a lot of (voting) information isn't getting there. So whites were going around saying, "Put an X next to the party you don't want. So if you don't want the NP, put an X next to its name.'
That instruction is false, and the old men asked detailed questions to learn the correct procedures. "It was very moving seeing 60-, 70-year-old men who had never voted before go through a mock election," said Reid.
About 25 other non-government American groups will be sending observer delegations to assist the 10,000 official South African election monitors overseeing the balloting.
In addition to such human problems as fear, problems of logistics also have to be overcome in the days preceding the elections, said Mike Lescault, a coordinator of the AFL-CIO African American Labor Center's voter education and observer project.
"Originally it was one ballot; now it's going to be two ballots," Lescault said. "The dates have changed, and the length of voting has changed. Up until last month, it was not known how many polling places there will be. So it's the nitty-gritty questions of how the election is going to be conducted that haven't been answered and that have made the voter education process itself somewhat speculative."
South African blacks, in the main, are a highly politicized people familiar with a culture of protest. Their politics have been in the form of rallies and boycotts.
"But translating that into going out and voting, it takes a personal approach: You have to be there, you have to talk to them," said Earl Shinhoster, the southern regional director of the NAACP. "It's really the birth of a whole new movement, which is democratic government."