S. African Election Poses Dilemma : Liberals Torn Over Whether to Vote or Abstain Next Week

Times Staff Writer

Liberal white South Africans have been caught in a painful political dilemma by next week's parliamentary elections.

The principles of many, particularly the more radical, dictate that they boycott Wednesday's whites-only election to protest the continued exclusion of the country's black majority from national politics.

"I will not participate in any election until there is a government representing all the inhabitants of South Africa," says the Rev. Nico Smith, the white pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church in Mamelodi, a black township outside Pretoria, the capital. "To not vote is the only protest I can voice--to cry out against the apartheid system, to say I do not want to participate."

But other liberals, arguing that it is important who governs the country, are determined to seize the chance in many constituencies to oust members of Parliament from the ruling National Party and elect either candidates from the Progressive Federal Party or breakaway independents.

Feels Duty to Choose

"Although I believe that the election is totally unrepresentative and meaningless overall, as long as there is such an institution as Parliament here, I feel some responsibility for choosing whoever is supposed to represent me," the Very Rev. Edward King, the Anglican dean of Cape Town, commented.

The country's Catholic bishops, declaring that "an election cannot be just if the system it serves is unjust," nevertheless concluded in a pastoral statement that the "lesser evil" might be to vote if a person believes that this could "produce some good."

The Progressive Federal Party, which hopes with the New Republic Party to capture 40 to 45 seats, compared to the 32 they now hold, sees the margin of victory in many constituencies as depending on such logic. Helen Suzman, who has served in Parliament since 1951, quotes Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned African National Congress leader, as telling her last year to "keep on using the system to protest the system."

"If we left Parliament, we would be replaced by people who did not give a tuppence about civil rights," she told critics demanding the party's withdrawal.

Looking Beyond Parliament

That argument is increasingly difficult to make, however, as many liberal whites, who have long supported the Progressives, join black activists in seeing change coming from political forces outside Parliament. They criticize the party as ineffective.

The Rev. Allan Boesak, a leading anti-apartheid campaigner, said in Cape Town last month that the Progressives, before they participated in another parliamentary election, should have demanded that the government end the state of emergency, release political detainees and prisoners and legalize the African National Congress and other banned groups.

"When will they learn that long-term credibility is worth much more than short-term gains?" Boesak said of the party's participation. "Credibility with black South Africans is far more important than the votes they will be picking up on May 6."

Even one of the Progressive Federal Party's own candidates, a journalist who had quit state-run television to run, found himself rejecting the traditional liberal argument on working for change within the system and withdrew from the election last month.

"As the result of a personal battle with my conscience, I have decided to withdraw from the whites-only elections on the grounds that they are undemocratic, unfair and totally irrelevant," Mauritz Moolman explained. Although his constituency includes the sprawling black ghetto of Soweto outside Johannesburg, Moolman noted that under the country's present constitution, he would not represent its more than 2 million residents if he won.

The outcome of Wednesday's election will not hinge on whether liberals vote. The Nationalists, who now hold 127 seats in the 178-member white House of Assembly, are certain to retain control of the government and fear gains by the far right more than those by the Progressives and independents.

But the size of the white protests, in terms both of votes for opposition candidates and of a boycott, will affect the strategy of the anti-apartheid movement.

"We made an 'appeal to whites' last year, and we want to renew it and give it more substance this year," Murphy Morobe, the chief spokesman of the United Democratic Front, the main coalition of anti-apartheid groups, said in an interview here. "We think the election, both the results and as an issue itself, will help us mobilize the white community and see where our support lies.

"For the black community, these elections are irrelevant, a true non-event, because they are largely a fight among whites over how to continue our oppression. But we know that in the white community many take them seriously and see opportunities in them to challenge the government and to put forward the positions of the broad democratic movement."

Although more radical groups wanted the United Democratic Front to call for a boycott, Morobe said, the group eventually decided upon what was dubbed a "vote if you must" approach aimed at maximizing abstentions in most areas but supporting Progressive candidates in districts where they otherwise might lose to Nationalists.

Describing the white-led minority government as "illegitimate" and the election as "a time-wasting blockade of the real issues that South Africa should be facing," the United Democratic Front left it to whites to decide how best they could "contribute to ending racism and minority domination."

But Morobe, reminding whites that it is in their name that "South Africa today is being run by the military and the police," warned "those who still see some virtue in this racist Parliament (that their) continued support is bound to lead to tragic consequences."

Thabo Mbeki, information director of the African National Congress, said that his organization, which has condemned participation in the election as "helping perpetuate apartheid," will study the election results closely in planning the resumption of its dialogue with whites, particularly with the Dutch-descended Afrikaners, a number of whom have broken with the National Party over the slow pace of political reform.

"We want to see how deep the layer of Afrikaner dissidents is, how broad the fissures in the white power structure are and how wide the swings are to the left and to the right," Mbeki said in an interview in Lusaka, Zambia, where the ANC has its headquarters. "We intend to expand discussions with our white compatriots, especially the Afrikaners, and the election results may give us an idea of how open they will be to us."

A dozen anti-apartheid white groups, brought together by the United Democratic Front's "appeal to whites" and the debate among white leftists over whether to participate in the election, recently formed a new political organization aimed at mobilizing the white community before and after the elections.

Called the Five Freedoms Forum, the new organization intends to base its campaign on appeals for "freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom from discrimination, freedom of speech and association and freedom of conscience."

Similar groups in Cape Town, Durban and the university town of Stellenbosch also decided not to press whites to boycott the election--emergency regulations prohibit boycotts--and instead are urging them to align themselves with the country's black majority for long-term political change.

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