South African Rural Whites Pull Fast One

PINI NTOBEKO isn't allowed to play tennis at his town's courts. His relatives would not be welcome at the old-age home. And his children are excluded from the best school.

While South Africa's first all-race parliamentary and presidential elections in April 1994 ended 300 years of white domination on the national level, local control is still in the hands of whites.

On Nov. 1, the final race barriers will come down: The country's first all-race local elections are expected to hand control to the black majority.

Mr. Ntobeko eagerly awaits the elections, to be held in seven of nine provinces. A campaign organizer for President Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, which rules nationally, Ntobeko expects his party to win five of the eight seats on Steynsberg's town council.

But in towns like this one, conservative whites are trying to keep public assets out of black hands by buying them up.

Whites are moving to privatize the tennis courts, country club, and a school. And they are resisting integration at the old-age home.

''They wanted to make sure the assets stay in white hands,'' says Thami Raqa, the black man most likely to become the new mayor. ''I think they were afraid of the changes coming.''

Mr. Raqa has been acting as interim mayor under a transitional local council (TLC), one of many established after South Africa's historic presidential and parliamentary elections.

Steynsburg, a sleepy railway town in the Karoo sheep-growing area 750 miles south of Johannesburg, epitomizes the fears of rural whites that they will lose what little they have. Whites here may be richer than blacks, but they don't have much - town roads are unpaved, the arid soil is hard to cultivate, and the country club's golf course is set on a rocky patch.

The one thing that raises the hottest passions for both the 12,000 blacks and 4,000 whites is education - who can attend the all-white Paul Kruger high school, which was hastily privatized in 1993 before the national elections.

Houses and schooling come first

Raqa points out that many members of his constituency, the Khayanandi township just outside the town proper, are homeless, illiterate, or jobless. Running water and electricity are elusive luxuries. Like many black voters across South Africa, they are frustrated by the government's slow delivery on promised social improvements and are more concerned with the 119 houses that are in the process of being built than with playing golf or tennis.

''It is the only thing the black community is protesting over,'' said Raqa. deputy principal of the overcrowded township school.

There are not enough classrooms for the 825 pupils. Forget about sports facilities.

In contrast, the private Paul Kruger school has 105 students - who practice their serves at the tennis club after school. Kruger's $50 monthly fees are inconceivable for any black family.

Alan Cumming, a white TLC member who is on the Kruger school board, defends the exclusivity, arguing that people of the same culture should stick together.

''I believe there should be equality for all in the new South Africa. But I have to protect what is mine, my property,'' he says. ''The school's credo is to maintain Western, Christian culture and norms, and a high standard of education.''

Whites' logic

Mr. Cumming denies whites wanted to seize the assets before the vote. He claims to see nothing odd in white councilors preferring to sell the tennis courts to the 25 members for $300 rather than repair them for $7,000 and open them up to the whole town.

He says saving the town money was also a consideration in the proposal to sell to country-club members the 37 acres of land for $300, rather than get the town to maintain the squash court, club house, and bowling green.

Mannetjie Notyeke, the sole black on the country-club board, says racism is not a factor. ''Anyone can join if he pays his fees,'' he says, in the butcher shop where he earns his living cutting prime meat for white barbecues. But can most blacks afford the $65 yearly membership? ''Well, no.''

Raqa said the TLC had launched a protest with the education department, and had decided to refer the assets dispute to the incoming council.

Not in my backyard (or country club)

Shaun MacKay, a researcher at the South African Institute of Race Relations think tank in Johannesburg, says the Steynsburg case is perhaps more extreme than the norm. But it is indicative of residual resistance by many white rural conservatives, who accept the inevitability of black rule but do not necessarily want blacks as next-door neighbors or schoolmates.

''They have largely come to accept what is happening,'' he says. ''The problem might come in bureaucracies, however. White conservatives might try to frustrate policies, especially in the building of new housing for blacks.''

Whatever the differences, black and white members of Steynsburg's TLC agree working together has eased racial tensions, although there is still work to be done.

Cumming says he visited the township for the first time, finding it an eye-opener.

''In the past year, there has been a vast improvement in seeing Steynsburg as an entity and not a fragmented community. We never went into their areas before. Now we're more prepared to give and take,'' he said.

But only up to a point, he concedes.

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