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Democratic Party Makes Inroads

New moderate-liberal party gains support among Afrikaners and English-speaking voters. SOUTH AFRICAN ELECTION

By John BattersbyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 29, 1989



WITBANK, SOUTH AFRICA

THIS ultraconservative coal-mining town east of Johannesburg is not the sort of place white liberals usually stand up to be counted. But the distinctive blue and yellow colors of the moderately liberal Democratic Party adorn the streets all the way to the party's campaign office in downtown Witbank.

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Analysts here say Witbank may be typical of an increasing number of South African communities.

Signs indicate that the new party, launched in April when the defunct Progressive Federal Party merged with two liberal splinter groups, is appealing to a far broader spectrum of whites. The Progressives' support came mainly from affluent neighborhoods in metropolitan centers.

Political analysts say the Democrats appear to be gaining support among Dutch-descended Afrikaners - particularly in cities - and to be wooing back some English-speaking voters who flocked to the ruling National Party in the last election.

However, as the newly formed Democratic Party gains wider support from English-speaking whites across the country, the party could very well become a spoiler in the Sept. 6 general elections, thus boosting prospects for the pro-apartheid Conservative Party.

The Democratics hold only 19 seats in the 166-seat white National Assembly. The far-right Conservative Party, with 22 seats, is South Africa's official opposition.

Some political analysts predict that the Democrats could increase their quota to 35 seats and the Conservatives to 42 seats in the September balloting.

Witbank is one of more than 100 voting districts where the Democratic Party, which advocates a nonracial democracy in a federal system, is entering the fray prior to the elections.

The decision by the Democrats to contest districts where their intervention in fierce battles between the ruling National Party and Conservative Party could result in Conservative victories has become a point of controversy that the Nationalists are exploiting.

But Democratic officials say the time has come for English-speaking whites, who have traditionally been more apathetic than their Afrikaner counterparts, to take a political stand regardless of the consequences.

``This is the first time that I have found a political home,'' says Mark Edwards, the Democratic campaign manager in Witbank. ``I would never have voted for the Progressive Federal Party. It created the image of being an elitist party,'' the 36-year-old civil engineer adds.

The Conservative Party advocates a return to rigid apartheid. In 1987 the party captured the Witbank seat in a straight fight with the National Party, which advocates a gradual dismantling of apartheid, with a narrow 842-vote majority out of 16,642 votes cast.

This time the Nationalists face a four-way fight. While the party is making a concerted drive to regain the seat, the entrance of the Democratic Party will almost certainly thwart them.

The Herstigte Nasionale Party (Reconstituted National Party), a far-right offshoot which is even more extremist than the Conservatives, is unlikely to win more than a few hundred votes.

Democratic officials in the town are confident that they can win about 3,000 votes. But they say their objective is not to play a spoiling role.

``We are not here to split the vote,'' said Lorna Bannatyne, a Democratic official. ``We have to grant people an option they believe in.''

Jacobus Venter, the Democratic candidate in Witbank, is a soft-spoken Afrikaner who grew up in a Nationalist home but later became disillusioned with the party's policies.

``Clearly, the only solution is to get rid of apartheid,'' says the 42-year-old electrical contractor. ``You cannot reform it.''