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If blacks could vote, however ...

JUST outside this teeming black township, the campaign posters halt abruptly, as does the right to vote in this week's white national election. But the election debate does not - as anyone in the Nlea Chisa Nyana Snack Shop, or the Afro Funeral Home across the dusty, pockmarked street, will tell you.

Some say that they would vote for Nelson Mandela - if they could vote, and if the patriarch of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC), who has been in jail since the early 1960s, could run for office.

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Yet others say they would prefer to be ruled by a white man, rather than risk the descent into tribal division and discrimination that has marked some emerging black-African nations. Some, indeed, say they would gladly reelect South African President Pieter Botha.

On three points, however, there seems to be no disagreement: South Africa's overwhelming black majority must have a vote in national government; the segregationist edifice called apartheid must be dismantled to the last brick; and the country's enormous wealth and glitter must be spread from the whites, who control most of it, to blacks, whose labor has helped make it possible.

``This election is a farce!'' scoffs Clive, an Alexandra Township youth who works part time at a storeroom facility in one of Johannesburg's plushest white suburbs. ``Why should I want to vote for anyone in this election, for anyone in a system that ignores my rights and oppresses my people?

``People from Europe come to this country every day. They can get a good job, buy a house with a lovely garden and a swimming pool - and vote. But blacks, who were born in this country, cannot!''

Apparently bearing out his ire, write-in ``ballots'' collated in recent weeks by the Sowetan - the newspaper with the largest circulation among blacks - have Mr. Mandela running in top spot at last count. Second place is held by Oliver Tambo, the current, exiled leader of the ANC.

Still, also high up on the Sowetan's count, which will be released in final form the day after Wednesday's election, are white liberals such as Helen Suzman and former parliamentary-opposition leader Frederik van Zyl Slabbert. Mr. Botha hovers just outside the top 20, having dropped in the past two weeks from No. 16.

At Alexandra's Afro Funeral Home, a clerk says Clive's seething anger at the white election is futile. ``Even if Mandela, and [Zulu leader Gatsha] Buthelezi, and P.W. Botha, were all on the ballot, I, for one, would vote for P.W.,'' he says.

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``Botha is making changes. If the right wing doesn't do too well in the election, maybe the changes will continue.... Maybe, even, we'll finally be allowed to vote.''

A lifelong resident of Alexandra, he is a member of the Southern Sotho tribal grouping. ``But Mandela is a Xhosa,'' he explains. ``Buthelezi is a Zulu. We blacks, you know, don't get along with each other. Even if there was a Sotho man to vote for, I would prefer to have a white in charge - with all blacks participating in government.''

A burly black shopkeeper, who has come to buy a wreath at the funeral home, seconds the argument. ``Botha is trying to change things. We must hope he succeeds,'' he says.

``But black leaders have spilled each others' blood!'' says this shopkeeper. His wreath adds eloquent testimony: It is for the son of his sister-in-law, burned alive last week by antigovernment radicals in the country's largest black township, Soweto.

But Absalom, a college-educated industrial laborer who recently joined Alexandra's huge army of unemployed, insists that tribal differences have dissolved in the shared bitterness among urban blacks over poverty and powerlessness. He suggests this is especially true in the wake of the government's state-of-emergency crackdown on black unrest.

``We keep hearing from white leaders that things are changing,'' he says. ``But the discrimination remains. I fear,'' he concludes in a near-whisper, ``that the only way things will change is through violence - through a bloodbath.''

Clive agrees. ``For year after year, the most powerful of our leaders have tried to change things. All they have gotten is promises, and year after year the promises have been broken. Botha does not represent us - he represents only the white man.''

Then, on reflection, he retreats a step. There are, he says, whites who have fought for black rights - ``people like Helen Suzman,'' the opposition parliamentarian who for 34 years has raised an unwavering voice against apartheid.

``I would not really mind being ruled by a white,'' he says. ``If I could have a good life, if oppression were gone, if I had my rightful part of the country in which I was born, then it wouldn't matter who was in charge.''

There the campaign debate ends - as Absalom relays a message from the snack shop's owner: ``You must realize there is a state of emergency. We should not be talking politics.''

This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.

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