Right-wing whites wrested some local power from President Pieter W. Botha’s ruling National Party in segregated municipal elections Wednesday, while in black townships, where anti-apartheid activists had urged voters to stay away from the polls, the turnout appreciably exceeded the last boycotted election.
From white suburbs to black townships, in polling places ringed by razor wire and armed soldiers, South Africans of all races voted simultaneously for the first time in an election that the state-run radio described as the most important in the nation’s history.
The nationwide city council elections were widely considered a referendum on Botha’s program of cautious reform, which is criticized by white Conservative Party members who want apartheid strengthened and by anti-apartheid blacks who want apartheid dismantled entirely.
In Pretoria, the nation’s capital and the most important white battleground, the Conservative Party took nearly half the council seats from the National Party. The Conservatives also won control of a dozen councils in smaller, mostly rural towns in Transvaal province and gained seats in others, but the party’s performance still fell short of the sweeping takeover it had predicted.
In Johannesburg, where the National Party and the liberal, anti-apartheid Progressive Federal Party shared power on the council, the Nationalists won a majority, signaling a move to the right, and supporters hoisted Foreign Minister Roelof F. (Pik) Botha to their shoulders in celebration.
“It was very, very important that Johannesburg, the premier city of this country, should reject racism,” Foreign Minister Botha said, referring to the Conservative Party’s challenge nationwide. “It is an encouragement for the government to move ahead for reform.”
The conservatives picked up their first seats ever on the Johannesburg city council. One of them was in Mayfair West, a white area where several hundred Indian families live in defiance of the Group Areas Act, which creates segregated residential areas throughout South Africa.
Voted ‘for Security’
“They voted for us for security, and to keep our areas white,” said Hendrick Claasen, the Conservative victor in Mayfair West.
But Neels Meiring, the losing Nationalist candidate, said the Conservative victory “is no solution” to the country’s housing shortage, which has forced blacks, mixed-race Coloreds and Indians to move into white areas.
“The people who live here have spent lots of money, and they need places to live,” Meiring said.
The percentage of black voters who cast ballots Wednesday and during 12 days of “prior voting” surpassed the 21% turnout recorded in the 1983 local elections that preceded bloody township riots, the state-run radio said. The government, which spent more than $2 million promoting the black elections, has said it would consider any voting increase as a mandate to press on with its reform program.
About 1.4 million of South Africa’s 26 million blacks were able to vote Wednesday in contested elections; about half of the 1,839 black council seats countrywide had only one candidate, and 125 seats had no candidates at all. Only 3 million blacks nationwide were considered eligible to register; most of the remainder are assigned to “homelands” created by the government.
The U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday voted 146 to 0, with the United States and Britain abstaining, to condemn the elections.
Anti-apartheid leaders, such as Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, had defied the government and called on blacks to boycott the elections and deny President Botha a chance to claim black support.
They contended that the elections were meaningless because millions were ineligible to vote, hundreds of community leaders are in detention and two dozen black political organizations have been banned or restricted. Blacks have no vote in national elections.