WORLD

PRETORIA’S GAMBLE

THE RULING NATIONAL PARTY MET ITS GREATEST POLITICAL CHALLENGE IN 40 YEARS

JOHN BIERMAN November 7 1988
WORLD

PRETORIA’S GAMBLE

THE RULING NATIONAL PARTY MET ITS GREATEST POLITICAL CHALLENGE IN 40 YEARS

JOHN BIERMAN November 7 1988

PRETORIA’S GAMBLE

WORLD

THE RULING NATIONAL PARTY MET ITS GREATEST POLITICAL CHALLENGE IN 40 YEARS

The leaders of South Africa's ruling National party seemed jubilant. Their gamble in holding nationwide municipal elections last week—risking a massive boycott by blacks and a drubbing by ultraright-wing whites—appeared to have succeeded. Blacks had turned out to vote in large enough numbers to give the elections some credibility, and the white supremacist Conservative party had failed to fulfil preelection fears that it would seize control of one or more of the country’s major cities. Even white liberals—such as Helen Suzman, a leader of the opposition Progressive Federal party—expressed guarded satisfaction that the Nationalists had withstood the challenge from the right. “I wouldn’t raise two cheers,” said Suzman, “but I would raise a very big sigh of relief.” But black opponents of apartheid, such as Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, were clearly scornful of government claims that 30 per cent of the registered black electorate had turned out. Said Tutu: “If you wrote an exam and you got 30 per cent, you have failed.”

Although polling was strictly segregated, the Oct. 26 elections—to fill 7,229 seats on separate black, white, Indian and colored (mixed-race) local councils—were the first in which South Africans of all races have voted simultaneously. Anti-apartheid groups denounced the process as undemocratic, but the elections did confront the Nationalists with their greatest challenge in 40 years of power. As the results came in, the government— encouraged by the relative failure of far rightists who want to revert to the strict apartheid system of the past—indicated that it would soon resume its program of cautious and limited racial reform, interrupted by black nationalists’ unrest and the 1986 declaration of a nationwide state of emergency.

The architect of that reform program, Minister of Constitutional Planning and Development Christiaan Heunis, said that the outcome would “give greater momentum to the process of constitutional development.” But clearly, that process would not include full voting rights for the 26-million-strong black majority. “The best one can hope for,” said Suzman, “is that the modest incremental changes that have been on the back burner for the past three years will now go onto the front burner.”

Most interest focused on the black voter turnout and the showing of Andries Treurnicht’s Conservative party. Treumicht, 67, broke with the National party in 1982 in protest against the relaxation of some racial separation laws—including a ban on intermarriage—and a decision to give Indians and coloreds representation within the previously whites-only parliament. His Conservative party immediately attracted support from extremist Afrikaners. In last year’s federal election, the Conservatives won 22 seats in the 178-seat parliament, replacing the moderate Progressive Federáis as the official opposition. So rapidly did the party gather strength that some analysts have predicted a Conservative victory over the Nationalists in the next federal election, expected next year. But last week’s results made that prospect seem less likely. Treumicht himself claimed that the results had put his party in “a very strong position” but stopped short of predicting victory at the federal polls.

The Conservatives had their strongest showings in the small towns and farming communities of the Transvaal, the richest and most populous of South Africa’s four provinces, and in blue-collar suburbs around Johannesburg, the country’s commercial and financial centre. But they narrowly failed to gain the important symbolic prize of Pretoria, the federal administrative capital and birthplace of Afrikaner nationalism. The Conservatives were also weak in the Orange Free State, where they had predicted major gains.

The Nationalists soundly defeated the Conservatives in Bloemfontein, the Orange Free State capital, taking all 18 city council seats. And in the Cape and Natal provinces, the Conservatives fared even worse. The capitals of those two provinces—Cape Town and Durban, respectively—remained in the hands of liberal politicians. The Nationalists themselves—in addition to holding off the Conservative challenge—scored their biggest win in Johannesburg, wresting control of the key northern city for the first time from the Progressive Federáis.

Meanwhile, the government said that the substantial black participation in last week’s elections makes credible its claims that moderate blacks are willing to work for gradual change within the system. According to official figures, the black vote ranged from a high of 80 per cent in some small rural towns of Cape Province to a low of less than 12 per cent in Soweto, the highly politicized sprawling black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The state-controlled radio said that about 30 per cent of the 1.5 million registered black voters turned out nationwide. That compared with a 21-per-cent turnout in the last black local government elections five years ago, despite calls for a boycott by anti-apartheid groups and exiled leaders of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC).

Still, almost half of the 1,839 black council seats were uncontested, and the estimated 400,000 blacks who did vote were only a small proportion of the adult black population. Accordingly, a spokesman for a white liberal group called the Five Freedoms Forum said that it would be “dangerous” to conclude that the turnout represented “a significant acceptance” of the process by the black community. And Archbishop Tutu declared: “Manipulate statistics whichever way you like. The reality remains that black South Africans reject apartheid and government attempts to give it a new coat of paint.”

One way in which the government secured a respectable black turnout was by a system of prior voting to reduce the threat of intimidation. That scheme allowed blacks to ignore boycott demands and cast their votes in local government offices at any time between Oct. 10 and election day, under the guise of performing some other function, such as paying the rent. Also, on voting day all polling stations were heavily guarded by troops or police in a successful move to prevent intimidation. Each voter was body-searched, sometimes twice, before being allowed in. The resulting calm was in marked contrast to the run-up to election day, when bomb attacks in white areas— widely blamed on the ANC—were an almost daily occurrence.

In the aftermath of the elections, government constitutional expert Heunis said with evident satisfaction that the people had voted for “peace, prosperity and democracy” rather than “revolution, violence and poverty.” But with anti-apartheid organizations banned, hundreds of black leaders detained without trial, the news media tightly muzzled and the economy suffering under the impact of international trade sanctions, peace, prosperity and democracy still seemed a long way off.

JOHN BIERMAN with CHRIS ERASMUS in Cape Town

JOHN BIERMAN

CHRIS ERASMUS