South Africans in L.A. Vote on Reform : Referendum: More than 700 whites cast absentee ballots. Many say apartheid must be dismantled in their homeland, where blacks are barred from polls.


It was not without a sense of irony that Anthony Gordon stood in line earlier this week at the South African consulate to cast his vote in favor of President Frederik W. de Klerk's policy of dismantling apartheid. After all, it was the bitter politics of racial divisiveness that drove him from his homeland years ago.

"Emotionally some of us find it strange voting for a government that was the architect of apartheid," said Gordon, an entertainment attorney who made Los Angeles his home after studying law at Harvard University. "But it's the only thing you can do if you are going to have a future."

Gordon is one of more than 700 South Africans living on the West Coast who traveled to the Beverly Hills consulate between Wednesday and Friday to cast absentee ballots in the referendum called by De Klerk for March 17.

One of 700 white South Africans, that is. As in all South African elections, blacks cannot vote.

Dr. Daniel Matemotja, who has been in the United States for 12 years, could not participate in this week's balloting. He called the whites-only rule "a racist solution."

"It is not a representative vote," he said in a telephone interview. "The people who should decide whether we continue the reforms are not the entire South African population. Our fate should not be put in the hands of a few."

Although no one is certain, most expatriates believe there are about 10,000 white South Africans in Southern California, concentrated mostly in Los Angeles, Irvine and San Diego. Whites greatly outnumber blacks, who tend to gravitate to the East Coast.

Before voting this week, whites had to present their passport and a South African identity document to consulate officials. The document is known informally as the "book of life," because it contains every official acknowledgment of a person's existence--birth certificate, marriage and driver's licenses and even such things as gun permits.

Consul Wesley Johanneson, a black South African who is second in command at the consulate, said South Africa's election laws require voters to have the book of life at the time they vote so it can be stamped. Those who do not have one are not permitted to vote.

Johanneson declined to comment on the fact that he could not take part in the balloting.

Those who could vote tended to agree that the alternative to reform would be bloodshed. De Klerk has vowed to resign if his policies to dismantle the last vestiges of South Africa's apartheid, primarily those that prohibit blacks participating in governing their country, are rejected in the referendum. "I believe that it is important that free elections be held as soon as possible," said Dennis Sapires, a lawyer who left Johannesburg six years ago to live in Los Angeles. "The more quickly and smoothly this happens, the better for everybody in the country."

And Philip Gershater, an investment analyst who came to Los Angeles three years ago, said he and his South African friends in Los Angeles didn't know of a single person who will vote "no" in the referendum.

"In fact, we were trying to find someone because a television station wanted to talk to them, but we couldn't find one," he said.

He and others predicted that most white South Africans in Southern California will give De Klerk overwhelming support. And most of those voting said the whites-only balloting is a necessary evil if De Klerk is to gain a mandate among whites for his reform policies.

In fact, some white South Africans in the Los Angeles area are supporters or members of the African National Congress, the formerly banned anti-apartheid political and guerrilla organization that is now negotiating with the government, said Mazisi Kunene, a black South African who has been in self-imposed exile for 32 years. Kunene, who now teaches African literature and languages at UCLA, criticized the referendum's whites-only stipulation.

But Kunene and Matemotja believe it is only a matter of time until blacks, who make up the vast majority of South Africa's population, have a say in their country's government.

"No matter what happens in the referendum we are going to be free," Matemotja said.

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