Pitching `democracy' in South Africa. Bureaucrats work to get out reluctant black vote in local election

Alan Van Winsen deals in democracy. He pushes it in pamphlets, posters, papers. He sells it on the streets, in stores, on sidewalks. He even talks it up by telephone.

Mr. Van Winsen is one of scores of civil servants promoting this month's municipal elections among blacks. Although people of all races are supposed to vote, the South African government is especially eager to get this group to the ballot box.

That's because President Pieter Botha wants to use the poll as a first step toward writing a new constitution. Mr. Botha is looking to work out a power-sharing system with the 28 million blacks - who have no say in national affairs - without giving up total white control.

But anti-apartheid activists here have a history of successful election boycotts. And despite a 27-month-old state of emergency - under which thousands of government opponents have been detained and numerous opposition groups gagged - they intend the same this time. Electing councilors for racially segregated towns, activists contend, only perpetuates apartheid.

So it's up to beleaguered bureaucrats like Van Winsen to convince blacks this ballot will lead to real political reform. That's why the government in Pretoria is pulling out all the stops, mounting a massive media blitz - complete with talking squirrels as somewhat unlikely stars - and a country-wide education campaign.

``We can't just can sit by and watch people destroy constitutional development,'' insists the tall, bespectacled Van Winsen.

(Pretoria also is spreading the poll over several days to minimize chances of black intimidation. Voters can cast ballots from Oct. 10 to 22 or on election day, Oct. 26.)

To get the project going, the government launched a study in five major metropolitan areas to figure out why only 21 percent of blacks turned out for the last town council vote in 1983. The conclusion: Hardly anyone knew about them. (Black local authorities, as the councils are called, were created in 1983.)

Officials concede the problem since has been compounded by the councils' poor reputation. Local authorities were rendered fairly ineffectual by lack of funds, a shortcoming exploited by ``street committees'' - radical groups that virtually ruled townships during unrest in 1984-86. So Pretoria has been working hard to dispel that image by pouring millions of dollars into improving long-overlooked townships.

And government workers are running ragged, trying to ``educate'' blacks about councils. Victor Milne, regional director of the Transvaal Provincial Administration, says his department alone contacted 2,000 firms for permission to lecture employees and distribute information.

The response, says Mr. Milne, hasn't been great. For starters, companies with strong unions aren't interested. (The Congress of South African Trade Unions has threatened to strike employers that allow campaigning.) Others can't be bothered and tell Milne's people just to drop off pamphlets.

(The handouts read like civics primers, with such titles as: ``What The Local Authority Does,'' ``Why We Need Local Authorities,'' and ``What Can We Expect From A Council Member.'')

Still, all the propaganda is having an effect. Close to 80 percent of the 3.1 million eligible blacks have registered to vote, according to the Bureau for Information. And of the 1,851 black town councilors' seats up for grabs, 56 percent are contested by at least two candidates; 37 percent are being sought by only one candidate (which means he or she automatically is elected;) and 7 percent received no nominations.

The results are either good or bad, depending on your point of view. Activists look at the number of seats that received no nominations and that are uncontested - and conclude there is no real election for almost half the black electorate. Government officials add up seats that have at least one candidate and say 93 percent got takers - no mean accomplishment in a place where radicals have intimidated and killed councilors.

``We've got a running start because at least we have candidates,'' Milne maintains. Adds Information Minister Stoeffel van der Merwe, ``It would be difficult enough to convince people under neutral circumstances. When you have revolutionaries conducting campaigns against you, it's that much more difficult.''

Enter the squirrels, the result of a four-month, $2 million market survey to get the message across that local government is good. At first, the Bureau for Information considered using real people in advertisements, explains Johann Eiselen, director of communication planning. But studies showed that every race carries a political connotation here - so humans were dropped in favor of animated characters.

Further research indicated blacks would respond best to animals, Mr. Eiselen recalls. Since the creatures needed anthropomorphic qualities, that ruled out crocodiles, elephants, and the like. They had to have no meaning in mythology, which narrowed the field further - to squirrels.

``Our studies showed this animal was kosher,'' says Eiselen.

So spots sporting the chubby, snazzily-attired rodents have been in major newspapers and on radio and television just about every day. One amicable-looking fellow tells another about how town councils provide vital services for communities. You ought to vote, he urges the other little guy.

(Many blacks seem offended. ``So that's what the government really thinks of us,'' sniffs one resident of Soweto, Johannesburg's gigantic township.)

Scientific surveys aside, Pretoria isn't going to win converts easily. Years of neglect by the government and indoctrination by activists leave no doubt in many minds about who has political legitimacy. Just listen to a group from Mshenguvillie squatter camp, a pathetic place where people have to wait in snaking queues to use a toilet or water tap. They crowd into a tiny, airless tin shack one night to discuss the elections.

``We've had enough with these councilors,'' shouts a commodious woman who sports a red beret. ``They promise us houses, but we've been living, six people in one shack, for two years.'' She elicits a loud murmur of approval, and a girl wearing a shower cap adds, ``If we want anything done, we go to our street committees. That's our government.''

Still, Van Winsen, the civil servant, remains undaunted. He sits in his car after talking to a group of black factory workers, fiddling with the air conditioning and trying to figure out if he got through to them.

``I can understand why these guys feel aggrieved,'' he says suddenly. ``What they don't understand is that we can't change overnight.''

Third of a series on the key local elections. Previous articles ran Oct. 14 and 20.

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