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South Africa's local vote: an official `trump card' that might not work

This month, South Africans are supposed to vote in racially segregated municipal elections. At first glance, not exactly earthshaking stuff. But in fact, this is a fight that has far-reaching implications for South Africa's political future.

``The stakes couldn't be higher,'' contends Mark Swilling, a University of Witwatersrand political scientist. ``These elections are the government's trump card.''

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That is because they are crucial to the military's counterinsurgency campaign, which aims at defeating what it sees as a revolutionary onslaught by the outlawed African National Congress (ANC). The idea is to ``neutralize'' political agitators, then co-opt a critical number of blacks to get them to join - not fight - the system.

Thus, Pretoria has detained thousands of anti-apartheid activists, poured millions of dollars into long-neglected black townships, and tried to promote an image of ``good'' government. The elections for black town councils - which have failed miserably in the past because of boycotts called by activists - are seen as the strategy's acid test.

Furthermore, the government wants to use the vote as a steppingstone toward negotiating a new political dispensation. President Pieter Botha is looking to create a multiracial council to rewrite the country's Constitution and to work out a system of ``power sharing'' with the 28 million blacks - who currently have no say in national affairs - without relinquishing total white power.

So a big voter turnout means victory for the government's securicrats - as they are known - and will legitimize the constitutional reform. All of which has Pretoria doing just about everything to lure blacks to the ballot box.

``The radicals can afford to lose because they can fight again,'' says Victor Milne of the Transvaal Provincial Administration. ``If we lose, it's catastrophic, because the whole [proposed] constitutional process falls apart.''

(Doing everything includes a rather complicated system that allows voters to cast ballots from now until Oct. 22, or on Oct. 26, the actual election day. The idea: to spread the voting over several days to lessen the chances of a successful black boycott through intimidation.)

At the same time, Mr. Botha's Nationals are frantic to keep their white constituents from defecting to the ultra-right wing Conservative Party. White fears about the slumping economy and a possible sellout to blacks are providing easy prey for the Conservatives, with their remedy of returning to strict, old-style segregation, known here as apartheid.

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So somewhat bizarrely, Pretoria is talking reform in black townships, but racial segregation in white suburbs. Which leaves many analysts predicting it all could backfire. For despite intensive campaigning, they believe most blacks will boycott the ballots, Conservatives will make huge inroads - and the country will awaken on Oct. 27 to a government bereft of workable policies.

``We are headed for a terrible period,'' warns Mr. Swilling. ``The state will be militarily strong but politically weak, while black opposition will be politically strong but militarily weak. That is a recipe for violent, long-term stalemate.''

Government officials see the elections as just the beginning of what they hope will be a gradual democratization process in black communities. It therefore does not really matter how many people turn out at the polls, they say; the idea is just to get the local authorities - as black town councils are known - up and running.

Those councils, which were established in 1983, were supposed to be an answer to black demands for political franchise. (Black areas had been administered by white municipalities.) They were part of a reform package that also created a tricameral Parliament with segregated houses for whites, Asians, and Coloreds. Blacks were excluded; they were meant to seek representation at the national level in tribal homelands, or bantustans, created by the government.

Pretoria required the councils to be self-sustaining - no mean task in the mostly impoverished ghettos where the tax base is low and revenues negligible. Unable to function, councilors raised rents and services charges. Residents were furious: The rise sparked violent unrest in black areas from 1984 to 1986 and nearly destroyed town councils.

That is when South Africa's military men stepped in with a classic counterrevolutionary strategy of suppressing political activists and trying to win over the population. Part of the hearts-and-minds campaign called for a revised approach to reform, one that finally acknowledged the councils' financial dilemma and the legitimacy crisis it caused.

So black councilors are now included in Regional Services Councils (RSCs) multiracial bodies that funnel tax money from white-owned businesses into the various municipalities. In black townships, those funds go to paving roads, installing sewerage systems, improving recreational facilities. They also go to enhancing the councils' images.

``Government must be seen on the ground to be working for the people,'' explains a military member of the State Security Council, a Cabinet-level body that advises the president. ``They must be convinced the black local authorities are going to look after them.''

Such cajoling is crucial to continuing Pretoria's next stage of reform.

After the 1984-86 upheavals, security and government planners decided blacks also needed to be included in some sort of limited national decisionmaking body. Hence, President Botha's proposed council to rewrite the Constitution.

But since the plan was perceived as being imposed from the top - among other things - even conservative blacks were loath to participate. So the government switched to a ``bottom up'' strategy, one that envisions getting a lot of blacks into the system at the bottom to start pushing them toward partaking at the top. The town council elections are the first step - which is why Pretoria is working so hard for their recognition.

The idea then is to have councilors meet in nine regional electoral colleges to choose representatives for the multiracial constitutional council. White, Asian, and Colored municipalities, and homeland administrations, are also to pick delegates.

``You can't build a democratic system all at once,'' says Information Minister Stoeffel van der Merwe. ``You have to develop it piece by piece. A good turnout at the polls will be a positive development for civilized democratic government.''

In the 1983 elections for local authorities, not many blacks bought the argument. Although participation varied greatly by township, only about 21 percent of eligible blacks cast a ballot. The government says the low turnout was because of ignorance about the poll and intimidation by radicals. So this time, Pretoria is pulling out all the stops to promote the vote - as well as cracking down even harder on activists.

Despite all this careful calculating and rethinking, however, big chunks of both black and white communities have rejected the government's reform strategy. For starters, Pretoria lacks the resources to co-opt large numbers of blacks to persuade them to participate, political analysts say.

Moreover, within the anti-apartheid movement, there is a long history of what activists call ``non-collaboration.'' They insist that, despite a 27-month-old state of emergency and the gagging of many opposition organizations, that consciousness is still alive. Township dwellers have become too politicized, activists say.

A young academic from Soweto, the sprawling black township outside Johannesburg, explains it this way: ``The uprising in 1984-86 was like a school of politics. We know those councilors don't represent us, that they are part of the apartheid state. The whites still will hold the power after the election, so why should we vote? That message is going out everywhere, all over the community.''

On the other hand, many traditional National supporters believe the government has gone too far in creating multiracial bodies like RSCs. They fear that all this ultimately must lead to majority rule - which makes analysts think they will desert in droves to the Conservative Party.

And if Conservatives win all-important Transvaal Province - home to 13 of the country's 16 RSCs - they could gum up a vital part of the government's reform formula. ``If we're a majority on the RSCs, then we'll make certain whites no longer subsidize blacks so that they can take over and dominate,'' declares Conservative chief Andries Treurnicht.

Perhaps more immediate is the concern that the country may be headed for another period of protracted violence. That is because every local authority in South Africa is flat broke, if not running at a deficit. While RSCs provide money for high-profile improvements, the councils still get operating revenues from rents and tariffs.

But widespread, activist-organized rent boycotts, among other things, are bankrupting many of them. Soweto's council, for instance, is about $65 million in arrears because of a boycott.

This means that after the elections, councilors will probably have to raise public-service rates in the township, says Steven Friedman of the South African Institute of Race Relations.

``And if they go up significantly,'' he warns, ``it could be 1984 all over again.''

First of several articles on issues surrounding the Oct. 26 local elections.

THE KEY ISSUES Reform, and how to deal with the political aspirations and representation of blacks, are the key issues underlying these elections. Each of five key parties has stated its views on these issues.

National Party On reform. Reform means the changes in the political, economic, and social systems with a view to the elimination of problem areas in these systems and the creation of conditions under which all citizens can enjoy the maximum peace and prosperity. On blacks. All communities should participate in the political process up to the highest level in a way that makes domination by one group impossible. The system within which to accomplish this should be the result of intensive negotiations between the leaders of all the various groups.

Progressive Federal Party On reform. Reform means constitutional restructuring, agreed upon by all representatives of all groupings in the society, to enable all South Africans to participate in the political process without domination; the removal of race as a criterion for rights and responsibilities; the end to all separation and discrimination. On blacks. As citizens they have an inalienable right to participate. We need a new constitution, which enjoys the legitimacy of all South Africans and is a product of negotiation and agreement amongst all South Africans.

Conservative Party On reform. Reform is a public relations gimmick to cloak the real intentions of a weak government - and that is to surrender South Africa piece by piece. The CP has no objection to change as long as it improves the position of all South Africans. On blacks. The CP is not prepared under any circumstances to negotiate the future of the whites with any other nation, of whatever color. Its policy of partition leads to a system where each nation governs itself and eradicates any problems of how to negotiate with blacks. New Republic Party On reform. Reform means abolishing all discriminatory legislation enacted since 1948. Reforms are too few and far between, and are introduced without thought for the consequences, namely the abolition of the Immorality Act (ban on intermarriage) without providing residential and educational facilities for mixed couples. On blacks. Blacks should be in Parliament as soon as there is an interim measure to create a proper climate for negotiating a long-term solution. Our intention is to include all political groups working toward a peaceful and recognized solution. Herstigte Nasionale Party On reform. Reform is meaningless unless used in such a way as to indicate what is to be reformed and how it is to be reformed. Reform at an accelerated pace is in fact revolution. All reform should be stopped in South Africa until law and order is restored. On blacks. The political aspirations of blacks should be confined to their own peoples, which should develop their own political institutions in the territories they historically settled. Nowhere and never has there been a successful system of power-sharing between different races and religions.

Source: South African Digest

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