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Low turnout of Colored voters suggests S. African 'reform' may be backfiring

Taken together, the results and the backdrop to this week's Colored elections suggest South Africa's program of so-called ''reform'' may be winning the government more enemies than friends.

The government could muster only halfhearted support from Coloreds at the polls. And the ruling whites reverted to heavy-handed security tactics to deal with a swell of discontent - over the elections and other issues - from all quarters of the nonwhite population. The discontent is seen by analysts here as a massive ''vote'' against government-styled ''reform'' in general.

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Still, Pretoria is not expected to change direction. But it may well be under greater pressure to try to enhance the legitimacy of its new political dispensation as a result of this week's election.

Coloreds went to the polls to elect representatives to a new tricameral Parliament that will open next month. The significance of the new Parliament, in the eyes of South Africa's whites is that it will include ''nonwhites'' for the first time. Both Coloreds (persons of mixed race descent) and Indians will be represented.

But there is deep opposition from nonwhites to the Parliament because it will exclude the country's black majority. Power will also remain firmly in the hands of whites in the new arrangement. Many urged a boycott of the elections to discredit the new Parliament.

In the end about 30 percent of the registered Colored voters went to the polls, the government estimates. Analysts regard the outcome as poor but inconclusive. It does not amount to total rejection. Neither does it show Colored acceptance of the ''new deal.''

The Colored Labor Party led by the Rev. Allan Hendrickse, won all but 4 of the 80 seats at stake.

The relatively low turnout means the new tricameral Parliament suffers a lack of ''moral legitimacy,'' says political analyst Lawrence Schlemmer, president of the South African Institute of Race Relations. But he says ''moral legitimacy'' is not the immediate issue. ''The white government has never had moral legitimacy but it has continued to function.''

The important question is whether the new Parliament can operate as intended. Mr. Schlemmer says the answer to that is ''yes.''

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''A legitimacy crunch comes when the capacity of the ruler to rule is affected. What the (boycott lobby) achieved will not prevent the Labor Party from participating or the government from implementing (the new Parliament),'' says Schlemmer.

The low poll is not expected to force the government to deal with South Africa's fundamental problem of how to accommodate black demands for meaningful political rights. But it is expected to make participating Coloreds anxious for some early benefits - in the form of better schools, housing, health facilities, and other social services.

In effect, analysts expect the new Parliament to suffer a second test of legitimacy quickly after it convenes. Although the government has much at stake in making the new system work, the country's deep economic recession will make it difficult to ''hand out the goodies,'' as one political analyst put it.

The election results were almost overshadowed by the social turbulence surrounding them.

Prior to the election, the government arrested a large number of people leading the campaign for a boycott. The United Democratic Front (UDF), the primary pro-boycott organization, claimed more than 200 of its members were locked up. About 150 people were detained on election day for allegedly staging protests near polling booths.

Government officials said more than 600,000 Colored pupils boycotted classes countrywide to protest the elections.

And in South Africa's black schools unrest has been growing for the past few weeks. At election time an estimated 30,000 black students were boycotting classes, but the black unrest appeared focused largely on dissatisfaction with the black education system.

The South African government maintains strict control on all forms of political dissent. Some analysts say it was slightly more tolerant of dissent during this election.

''The government allowed the lid to be lifted a bit. But it found the pot is a lot hotter than what it imagined,'' Schlemmer says.

The government's crackdown the day before the election amounted to reversion to heavyhanded tactics. Most analysts say this was not so much to influence the election - it probably backfired in that sense - but rather to deal with accelerating unrest among nonwhites.

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