S. Africa's white rightists challenge ruling party at polls

Johannes Lodevikus Otto Esterhuizen says he has no objection to standing in the same queue at the post office with a black person. But, he adds, he does mind standing for two or three hours waiting for black people in line before him to be served.

That's why he favors racially segregated post offices -- and segregation of virtually every facility or institution in South Africa.

"If you let him [a black man] into the schools, the churches, the police force, how can you stop him from voting?" asks Mr. Esterhuizen, a member of the dominant Afrikaner ethnic group.

"The problem," he says, "is their numbers."

(Of South Africa's 27 million people, only the 4 million whites are entitled to vote in general elections for Parliament.)

According to Mr. Esterhuizen, a lot of other residents in this small South African mining town share his sentiments.

Some political analysts think he is right. And at least one commentator predicts that Mr. Esterhuizen will win a place on the Transvaal Provincial Council, a body roughly equivalent to a state legislature in the United States, during the general election in South Africa on April 29.

If he does win, the repercussions will be felt throughout the white power structure in this minority-ruled country. For Mr. Esterhuizen is a member of the far right-wing Reconstituted National Party (Herstigte Nasionale Party), which is accusing the ruling National Party of "selling out" whites in South Africa.

And that single issue -- whether Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha is jeopardizing whites' futures by making too many concessions to blacks -- is about the only one that has generated much passion in the run-up to this country's elections.

For blacks, it is largely a nonissue, for many have already dismissed Mr. Botha's reformist rhetoric as a ploy to delude the international community and obscure even greater political repression internally.

But many whites take the prime minister seriously, despite the fact that during his 2 1/2-year tenure not a single major piece of racially discriminatory legislation has been repealed.

Nevertheless, even allusions to change (though unaccompanied by actions) are enough to incite strong passions among white voters here.

"Botha's bending over backward for the blacks," says one Afrikaner in Kimberley, in the north-central part of the country, while he perused an HNP campaign leaflet and pondered how to cast his vote in the election.

According to a poll by the Johannesburg Sunday Times newspaper, nearly one in five Afrikaners are similarly confused -- and are described as "politically homeless."

The same poll showed that the National Party will still pull nearly half the votes in the general election. Because of South Africa's gerrymandered system of representation, the Nationalists would still be able to maintain a comfortable majority in Parliament.

Still, in the insular view of many Afrikaner Nationalists, the size of the victory will probably count for less than the inroads made by the right-wing HNP. For in this country, maintaining the unity of the Afrikaner electorate -- the volkm -- is paramount in the minds of many Afrikaners, and any slippage to the HNP, which unabashedly claims to represent the forces of Afrikaner hegemony, is a cause for major concern.

Consequently, the National Party is taking the threat from the HNP seriously, even to the point of trying to have the party's candidates disqualified.

The tactic worked here in Rustenburg, where the HNP parliamentary candidate, Dr. F. F. Ipland, was taken off the ballot after the Nationalists pointed out irregularities in his nominating petition. The HNP says, however, that the objections raised by the Nationalists --example -- are unimportant, and only underscore the ruling party's fear of growing righ-wing resistance.

"Our support is growing," claims Mr. Esterhuizen. "The whites feel they are going to be overrun by the blacks," he adds.

That fear is perhaps more palpable here in Rustenburg than in many other South African urban areas. This town is on the edge of Bophuthatswana -- nominally an independent country, but in fact one South Africa's black tribal reserves -- and blacks far outnumber whites in the stores and on the streets.

"Every day," says Mr. Esterhuizen, "we see the result of National Party policy."

Whites fear that sharing facilities with blacks will inexorably lead to majority rule, he says.

"And if you look at Africa," he says, rattling off a list of nations, "those countries have problems that came when they had one man, one vote."

To counter such arguments, the Nationalists have tried to reassure whites that their interests will be upheld, while at the same time castigating the HNP for causing ill will between the races.

The two arguments have not melded very well, and National Party campaigners are pulling markedly smaller crowds these days. Earlier, when Prime Minister Botha himself gave an address here in Rustenburg, raucous heckling and fisticuffs marred the occasion.

"We don't trust him," argues J. J. Botha, a retired mine employee and former National Party official now supporting the HNP.

"We reckon that after the election, he'll change policy to make it impossible for the European [white] to fight his own battles."

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