Blurred Image in South Africa

Local elections in South Africa on Wednesday served as a reminder of the extraordinary diversity of the nation, including political diversity within the ruling white minority, even if they did not provide a clear image of the national political future.

"In terms of public perceptions, no side has scored a knockout blow," Robert Schrire, a professor of politics at the University of Cape Town, told Reuters. So it seemed. Indeed, each political element found some reason to claim victory in the elections. The real victor may have been political uncertainty.

Much of the interest focused on the black majority of the nation, voting simultaneously with the whites for the first time--but in carefully segregated contests. There was an increase in the turnout of black voters over that of the 1983 election--remarkable in the face of the risk of violence and of the efforts of anti-apartheid activists like Archbishop Desmond Tutu to organize a boycott. But a one-third turnout of registered black voters, the tally reported by the government, falls short of being a clear endorsement of the government's continued reform efforts because it represents only about 5% of the voting-age blacks. Such was the tension in the black townships that less than half the seats in those areas had more than one candidate.

The increased strength of the pro-apartheid Conservatives in the Transvaal, the most populous province, was a measure of the resistance that President Pieter W. Botha will face when his Nationalist Party faces elections next year or in 1990. But the Conservatives did not demonstrate strength likely to bring them to power among the whites who hold the critical reins of government. The Nationalists won a majority in the biggest city, Johannesburg, and kept a narrow majority in the capital, Pretoria, while the anti-apartheid forces of the Progressive Party maintained control in the two other most important cities, Durban and Cape Town.

World opinion of this election was fairly summed up in the United Nations' resolution that found, by a vote of 146 to 0, with the United States and Britain abstaining, that this was "contrary to the principles of the U.N. Charter." So must any racially segregated exercise be judged.

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