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Apartheid Ends - Locally - As South Africa Towns Vote

The true test of a new democracy is the spread of effective citizen participation, particularly to the local level. Now that South Africa has successfully completed the transfer of power to more than 700 municipalities throughout nearly all of the country, by means of the ballot box, citizens both black and white can assert their claims close to home, where their lives are intimately affected on a daily basis.

Few African and Asian nations have devolved power to the people in this manner. Most have retained an older pattern of appointed regional and local rulers, loyal not to the voters but to national governments.

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In 1994, however, South Africa took the risky federalist step of expanding its existing four provinces to nine regions, and handing civic powers previously exercised by the central government to popularly elected region-al legislatures. Now it has gone further, fusing formerly white and black administrative subdivisions (including former white cities and black townships) and giving the mixed citizenry control over town councils and leaders.

The African National Congress (ANC), which dominates the Government of National Unity at the central level and controls all but two of the nine regions, also won handily this month in the local elections, with about 60 percent of eligible voters casting ballots.

Nationally, about 58 percent of voters favored the ANC, but the white-led National Party (NP) received 17 percent of the vote, independents 10 percent, and other parties 6 percent. In the Western Cape region, now governed by the NP, that party led the ANC 42 percent to 35 percent, but the Coloured electorate, which voted with the NP in 1994, had swung to the ANC. The Natal-KwaZulu region will vote in March. Voting in Cape Town was also delayed.

The ANC victory was in no way uniform, nor without its regional and municipal setbacks and surprises, proving that the process of voting was free and fair, if occasionally ragged.

The complicated method of voting in cities and some towns, with direct votes for ward candidates and proportional voting for parties and groups, was intended to promise representation beyond their real numbers to whites (who previously controlled nearly all municipalities). This has prevented the abrupt ouster of all local leaders from the apartheid era, but effective power has nonetheless passed to a new generation and to persons of post-apartheid persuasion.

IN the country's most populous areas, where white-run municipalities never had to share tax revenues and services with much poorer black townships, the potentially traumatic shift seems to have been widely accepted.

Gauteng is South Africa's most important region, including as it does Johannesburg, Pretoria, and the gold mining and industrial region of the Witwatersrand at the economic heart of the country. According to poll results almost a week after the election (counting of paper ballots was slow and continuing), the ANC won 12 of 17 municipal councils in the region, two others were controlled by independents, and three others were closely contested by the ANC, independents, and the NP.

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In Johannesburg (now combined with Soweto, and other African and white suburbs), the ANC led decisively in the polls in individual wards, by 42 to 15 for the liberal white-led Democratic Party (DP), and 14 for the NP. In Pretoria, long an Afrikaner stronghold, the NP had 10 ward seats and the ANC 9, with two white-led conservative parties together winning 6 and the DP 1. Voters in both big cities supported white candidates despite overwhelming black eligible voting numbers.

The strength of the ANC in NP-dominated territory in the Western Cape proved a major surprise. Possibly because of the shift in the Coloured vote, the ANC took the traditional Afrikaner towns of Paarl, Stellenbosch, Swellendam, Worcester, Mossel Bay, and 11 others. The NP controlled 11, and 26 had independent majorities. In another 42 the affiliation of independents was not yet established. Throughout the province, the ANC won 306 council seats and the NP won 292. The Pan Africanist Congress won only 3. Independents won another 164.

When the final count is available later this month for all 700 councils throughout the country, it will become even clearer than last year how thoroughly South Africa is embracing the participatory process. Holding a national election is comparatively easy and straightforward, particularly with Nelson Mandela heading a popular ticket. Exercising a local franchise is much more fundamental and intricate.

Now South Africa can truly assert that politics is local. The post-apartheid era can commence at that level.

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