JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Bulletproof vests are selling out. Pagers never stop beeping. Hotels are packed and cellular phones are part of the dress code.

Less than a week before South Africa's first democratic election, the media have converged on the country with a frenzy not seen since African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990.

But as thousands of correspondents clamor for beepers and a chance for bylines in history, they're learning paradise doesn't come without pandemonium.

More than 760 foreign correspondents have been issued temporary accreditation since February to cover the April 26-28 vote. Up to 3,000 are expected to plant their inquisitive feet on South African soil over the next four weeks.

The numbers aren't surprising considering the story: It will be the first time South Africa's black majority has been able to vote. And Mandela - once the world's most famous political prisoner - is expected to become the country's first black president.

But outside the perks of cellular phones, executive apartments and fast cars lies Third World confusion, grueling work and deadly conditions.

''After working through the Gorbachev revolution, I thought I was prepared for South Africa, but reality is different once you're on the ground,'' said Trevor Fishlock of The Daily Telegraph.

This type of ground reality includes waking up at 5 a.m. to track Mandela's campaign tour; getting lost in desolate rural areas where cellular phones don't work as deadlines loom; fighting crushing crowds at disorganized campaign rallies where stampedes have killed at least three people.

''We're really concerned about the numbers of journalists flocking down here,'' said Paddi Clay from the South African Union of Journalists. ''When you have a hack pack of this degree, people tend to get angry, especially when journalists mob toward rallies and religious events.''

Antagonism stems from fierce political polarization - each party believes the media are unfair toward them - and from the white government's long campaign to portray the media as enemies of the state.

In the past year, five journalists have been killed and more than 115 attacked reporting in South Africa. More journalists are looking for protection in the form of high-tech body armor designed to ward off anything from a Zulu spear to a slug from an AK-47 assault rifle.

''We've sold so many bulletproof vests to foreign journalists that we have had to re-order stock every other day,'' said Dennis Heyes of Body Projects. ''Danger means big business for us.''