S. Africa Holds First All-Race Local Voting : Elections: Millions flock to polls to put blacks on town councils.


Clad in filthy overalls instead of his trademark khaki uniform, this infamous town’s most notorious resident climbed into a white pickup truck Wednesday and said he was going to plow his cornfields rather than vote in South Africa’s first all-race local elections.

“Vote? For what? They’re all fools,” muttered Eugene Terreblanche, the white-bearded white supremacist who heads the Afrikaner Resistance Movement and who once hogged headlines with fiery threats of civil war. “They are wasting our time.”

Terreblanche and his vicious neo-Nazi militia have faded into obscurity since the liberation election of April, 1994, ended apartheid and ushered in national democracy and racial reconciliation under President Nelson Mandela.

But little else changed in this bastion of racial bigotry and far-right politics.


The all-white Town Council continued to rule. Only four blacks moved from the tin shacks of nearby Tshing township into leafy white neighborhoods. Blacks were denied entrance to a local pool. All but two white children, and all the desks and chairs, were removed from a local primary school when black students arrived to integrate it.

But Ventersdorp and hundreds of other white communities were set to change forever Wednesday as millions of voters flocked to polls to elect officials--mostly black--who will decide how local taxes are raised and spent, where roads and sewers are built and the other nitty-gritty elements of daily democracy.

“The first election was on a national scale,” explained Salie Van Coertze, a right-wing member of Ventersdorp’s Town Council. “It didn’t affect people on a grass-roots level. But this election is for the people. It touches people where they live. . . . The change will come now.”

Election officials reported a moderate turnout of the 12.8 million registered voters casting ballots for 701 municipal and rural ruling bodies across the country. Balloting has been postponed until next year for an additional 4.7 million registered voters due to disputes over redrawn ward boundaries.

Minor problems but no real violence was reported Wednesday. The first use of voter registration and a complicated system of multiple ballots produced inevitable confusion. The most unusual delay occurred near the Kruger game park when a foraging elephant disrupted voting at a rural polling station.

Final results are not expected until Friday. But pre-election polls and independent analysts agreed that Mandela’s African National Congress, the largest black-led party in a nation with a 75% black majority, is likely to win as broadly as it did last year, when it swept 63% of the vote for national and provincial offices.

Tom Lodge, a political scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand, said he expects the ANC again to overwhelm former President Frederik W. de Klerk’s National Party and other white-led parties almost everywhere except in parts of Pretoria, the country’s administrative capital and one of the few metropolitan areas where white voters hold a clear majority.

“Nearly everywhere else, the demographics are against anyone except the ANC,” Lodge said.

ANC officials preferred to credit their continued popularity to political stability and steady economic growth, including news last week that inflation has dropped to its lowest level in two decades.

“The majority of areas will end up with black-dominated local governments,” predicted Mohammed Valli Moosa, an ANC deputy minister of provincial government.

For his part, Mandela kissed babies, greeted friends and helicoptered to several polling places Wednesday.

“I think [the voting] is proceeding very smoothly,” he told reporters outside Johannesburg City Hall.

But Mandela did not vote. He said he wanted to support those unable to cast ballots after court challenges over gerrymandering delayed the election in several dozen rural districts, in the greater Cape Town area and in all of KwaZulu-Natal province, the strife-torn stronghold of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party.

The relative quiet of balloting Wednesday was in sharp contrast to the electrifying energy and drama of South Africa’s founding democratic election only 18 months ago.

Then, nervous whites stockpiled canned beans and candles in anticipation of civil war. Right-wing extremists planted car bombs that left 20 people dead. And massive logistic snafus led to extra polling days and widespread confusion. In the end, the world watched in awe as millions of blacks lined up patiently for hours, and sometimes days, to cast their first ballots.

This time, the monthlong campaign barely made the front pages. The parties battled apathy and indifference, not each other. Few candidates were known outside their own districts. And national issues, especially efforts to combat a fast-rising crime rate, overshadowed local concerns.

Indeed, only one campaign drew national interest. In tiny Morgan’s Bay, on the southeast coast, a black maid, Ntombizodwa Nonqayi, ran against Pebs Saunders, her “madame,” as white homemakers are known here. It was life imitating art, since a popular daily newspaper cartoon, “Madame and Eve,” satirizes a similar relationship.

Race and class, with a strong dose of fear, were the issues in Ventersdorp. The tree-shaded town hugs the wind-swept prairie 90 miles west of Johannesburg. About 2,000 whites hold power and privilege while about 15,000 blacks struggle in the Tshing slum without running water, paved roads or electricity.

“Most people don’t have jobs or houses,” said Simon Ditse, 28, who sells soft drinks from a roadside stall. “The problem is, [the whites] forgot others were suffering. Now [blacks] will take their offices. And they’re afraid of what we might do.”

Ventersdorp first won notoriety in 1991, when masked thugs from Terreblanche’s movement attacked unarmed blacks in Tshing with stiff whips and pistols. Soon after, the movement--known by its Afrikaans acronym, AWB--made the mistake of charging armed police. Three men were killed in the ensuing shootout.

The poll result is a foregone conclusion: After domination for decades by the pro-apartheid Conservative Party, the next Town Council--and the next mayor--will be black.

White candidates will win the three white wards. Black candidates are not even being opposed in the three much more populated black wards. The only question is whether the ANC will win all three of the other council seats, chosen by proportional representation, to form a legal voting majority.

“At the end of the day, the ANC will be in charge,” conceded Albertus Van Zijl, who has been on the all-white council for 19 years. “But if they get the majority, I can’t predict what will happen.”

Presumably to derail that majority, the council ruled that two crowded black wards in Tshing had to share a single classroom on election day. By noon, hundreds of tired and angry voters had stood in the hot sun for five hours as the line inched forward. Scores gave up and left without casting ballots.

Soon after, however, a second classroom was opened to ease the congestion. Meshack Mbambalala, the 26-year-old ANC candidate, struggled to calm tempers and keep his supporters in line. He insisted, however, that he would hold no grudges once in office.

“We are not going to neglect the white people,” he said. “But people who are really needy, they will come first.”