The government Thursday welcomed an increased turnout of black voters in municipal elections as a clear sign of support for its limited apartheid reform program, but critics called the voting meaningless and the boycott of the elections a success.
"A significant percentage (of blacks) have voted for peaceful, evolutionary change in South Africa and . . . rejected violence and revolution," said Chris Heunis, the government's minister of constitutional development and planning. "This heralds the next phase in the process of democratization. Through these elections, black participation up to the highest level will become a reality."
By late Thursday, the government had not released a figure for black voting in Wednesday's elections, but officials said it exceeded the 21% turnout in the last black local elections, and the evening newscast on state-run television said it could be high as 30%.
Meanwhile, record numbers of whites went to the polls in the racially segregated elections, and the far-right Conservative Party won dozens of local council seats. Yet the ruling National Party said that by maintaining control of the largest councils, including Pretoria, it had showed that most whites still support the government.
The government needed a strong black voter turnout Wednesday to legitimize local township councils, which are the cornerstone of President Pieter W. Botha's plan to bring blacks eventually into high-level, but advisory, positions in the federal government. Botha rejects full black political participation, and blacks have no vote in parliamentary elections.
Anti-apartheid activists said Wednesday's local elections were a sham, especially with hundreds of black leaders in detention and black political activity severely restricted.
Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, who had supported the boycott, said the elections were "a ploy to hoodwink the outside world and co-opt blacks into maintaining apartheid."
Disputes 'Solid Mandates'
"It's quite hilarious, really," Tutu said at a news conference in Cape Town. "They (the government) are claiming that the people elected have 'solid mandates.' How can there be a solid mandate when half the seats for blacks were not even contested for lack of interest?"
The turnout of registered voters hailed by the government, while higher than the 21% that voted in widely boycotted elections in 1983, represented fewer than 400,000 voters--1.5% of the total black population.
Only about 3 million of the 26 million blacks in South Africa are considered eligible to vote. Most of the rest are underage or assigned to homelands created by the government.
One of the higher turnouts was in Khayelitsha, a new township outside Cape Town, where nearly 45% of the 67,000 registered voters cast ballots.
Soweto Turnout 11.5%
But in the country's largest township, Soweto, where 347,000 of the 2.2 million residents were registered, the turnout was only 11.5%.
Most of Soweto's council seats were won by millionaire Ephraim Tshabalala's Sofasonke Party. Tshabalala's son, who is expected to be the next mayor, was almost disqualified because his hardware store owes the township council $9,000 in back rent.
One of those who voted in Soweto, Richard Radebe, said he wanted "to improve things for us blacks."
"We must be able to tell the (white) government officials what we want," he said. "They will listen to our councilors, but if you are not in the council, they do not want to listen."
More typical was M. H. Letsoalo, a Soweto traffic policeman, who said he did not vote because "I don't know what they (the town council candidates) are talking about."
Orange Juice and Mints
While most townships were quiet Wednesday, white neighborhoods were plastered with candidates' posters and polling stations were thick with supporters in colorful hats handing out orange juice and mints to voters. Ordinarily dull local elections had been transformed by the clash between the government's National Party and the Conservative Party.
The right-wing Conservatives, who want a return to hard-line apartheid, swept two-thirds of the local councils in the Transvaal, historically a strong base of National Party support. In Pretoria, the nation's capital and home to many civil servants who owe their jobs to the National Party, the Conservatives won 19 city council seats, compared to the National Party's 22.
Although the Conservatives had predicted even more sweeping victories in the Transvaal, their showing at the polls still indicated a sharp swing to the right among white voters. The National Party gained some ground as well from the more liberal Progressive Federal Party.
Education Minister F. W. De Klerk said the Conservatives' failure to fulfill their predictions was a sign of "strong, continued support for the N.P. by the majority of white voters."
The Conservatives, on the other hand, said their victories put them in a position to thwart government policy and eventually challenge the National Party's 40-year rule.
'Strong Base for Future'
"We have established a strong base for future action," said Andries Treurnicht, the Conservative Party leader, referring to the next parliamentary elections, expected by 1990. The Conservatives won 26% of the vote in the last national elections, in May, 1987.
The fiercest Conservative-Nationalist clashes took place in middle-class white suburbs of Pretoria, where polling places were surrounded by armed policemen.
In one of those neighborhoods Wednesday, about 6,500 of the country's 1.5 million white voters faced a choice between F. J. van Zyl, the Conservative, and Louis Naude, the Nationalist.
Van Zyl's Conservative campaign focused on national issues, such as maintaining segregated residential areas and restricting blacks' presence in urban areas.
"I got into this race because I think it's important for whites to look after ourselves," Van Zyl said.
"It's easier to scare people than talk about local issues," countered Naude, the Nationalist, as two troop carriers loaded with soldiers roared into the civic center parking lot. "The Conservatives will try to take back what we've already given them (the blacks), and that will hurt a lot of people."
Van Zyl won, but no one knows whether he and the other Conservatives will be able to halt apartheid reform, as they have pledged to do.
Johannesburg bureau assistant Michael Cadman contributed to this article.