It was a campaign amid violence as three million white South African voters prepared last week to elect a new all-white parliament on May 6. Last Tuesday, as young black recruits paraded at a police training centre in Soweto, the sprawling black township outside Johannesburg, an assailant hurled a hand grenade over a security fence from a moving truck, killing one black policeman and wounding 64 others. The next day—in one of the biggest mass protests since the government imposed a nationwide state of emergency last June—tens of thousands of Soweto residents stayed away from work and school. Their stay at home was to protest an eviction campaign by the authorities, aimed at breaking an 11-month-long rent boycott called by anti-apartheid activists. And in Johannesburg, police shot and killed six blacks in running battles with railway strikers. In all, at least 14 people were killed last week in a violent prelude to the elections.
Under the state of emergency, severe reporting restrictions—which Natal province’s supreme court overturned late last week—kept details of the
violence and strikes to a minimum. In an editorial, the state-run South African Broadcasting Corp. charged that radicals were seeking to “create a climate of uncertainty and confusion in which the new government that will be formed after the election will be denied a strong mandate from the electorate.” In what was likely to be Presi-
dent Pieter Botha’s last election campaign, the 71-year-old leader was clearly attempting to preserve the modest social and economic reforms that he had brought in during his nine years in office.
But Botha’s attempts to keep the country operating normally were dealt two severe blows last week. Officials of state-owned South African Transport Services fired 16,000 railway employees when they failed to heed a governmentimposed deadline to end a crippling six-week strike. And at two Johannesburg gold mines, 24,000 black miners walked off the job to protest massive layoffs. Said leading South African labor relations consultant Gavin Brown: “If the labor movement loses control of this, it could develop into worse and worse civil unrest.”
Government officials claimed that guerrillas of the banned antigovernment African National Congress (ANC) were planning to sabotage the coming elections. And at week’s end, helicopter-borne South African commandos launched a raid on the southern Zambian community of Livingstone in what the army said was an investigation of infiltration routes used by black nationalist guerrillas. The ANC, condemning the raid, said that four Zambians were killed, none of them members of that organization. Its spokesmen also rejected the sabotage charge, calling it an election gimmick aimed at rallying support for Botha’s embattled National Party.
Botha, who has led the National Party since 1978, has angered both arch-conservative rivals and right-wing members of his own party by abolishing key elements of apartheid. Those policies included a longstanding ban on interracial marriage and sex, and the controversial pass laws, which severely restricted the movement of blacks within the country. Faced with growing Afrikaner unease over such reforms, Botha shrewdly called
the election two years ahead of schedule, evidently to pre-empt the formation of a united right-wing opposition.
Some observers say that Botha wants to leave behind a still-monolithic ruling structure, moving cautiously but steadily toward addressing the outstanding issue in South African politics: the inclusion of blacks in central government. “President Botha must be thinking of stepping down sooner or later,” said political analyst David Welsh of Cape Town University. “The incoming president will want his own election to secure his own mandate, so my instinct is that [Botha] will probably go before the next election.”
Most opinion polls predict a handsome, if slightly reduced, majority in the 178-seat white parliament for the National Party, which has governed South Africa since 1948. The most credible rightist threat comes from the Conservative Party, which now holds 18 seats. But squabbling between Conservative Leader Andries Treurnicht and ultra-right Reformed National Party Leader Jaap Marais over who might head a united right-wing front has seriously diminished the proapartheid parties’ electoral chances.
On the liberal side, the official opposition Progressive Federal Party (PFP) and its ally, the New Republic Party (NRP), are likely to increase their joint total to about 40 seats from their current 32, observers say. And three independent candidates—all former members of the National Party—are clearly hoping to tap a growing pool of support among middle-of-the-road whites for major social reform. Indeed, a recent nationwide Johannesburg Sunday Times poll indicated that 71 per cent of National Party supporters were in favor of power-sharing with blacks. But while significant gains are unlikely, the independents are already talking about forming a new centrist party after the election. And the left-of-centre PFP-NRP alliance is discussing the formation of a coalition of moderates to fight the next election.
Outside of parliament, such antiapartheid groups as the United Democratic Front, an umbrella organization with about two million members, have characterized the whites-only election as irrelevant to the real issues facing the country. And ANC leaders based in Zambia have claimed that the vote is meaningless and unworthy even of guerrilla attempts at disruption. But power still rests with South African whites. And on May 6, when the ruling race goes to the polls, many South Africans will be looking closely for signs of cracks in the National Party.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.