Grappling with the future. Botha's political vision on the line in local vote. `The stakes couldn't be higher' in South Africa

THIS month, South Africans are supposed to vote in racially segregated municipal elections. Not exactly earthshaking stuff at first glance. But the poll here is about more than just new roads, better crime prevention, or increased garbage collection. This is a fight that has far-reaching implications for South Africa's political future. ``The stakes couldn't be higher,'' contends Mark Swilling, a University of Witwatersrand political scientist. ``These elections are the government's trump card.''

The local government elections throughout the country are crucial to the military's counterinsurgency campaign, which aims at defeating what it sees as a revolutionary onslaught by the outlawed African National Congress (ANC). The idea is to ``neutralize'' political agitators, then co-opt a critical number of blacks to get them to join - not fight - the system.

In line with this, Pretoria has detained thousands of anti-apartheid activists, poured millions of dollars into long-neglected black townships, and tried to promote an image of ``good'' government. The elections for black town councils - which have failed miserably in the past because of activists' boycotts - are seen as an acid test of this strategy.

Furthermore, the government wants to use the vote as a vital step toward negotiating a new political set-up. President Pieter Botha is looking to create a multiracial council to rewrite the Constitution and to work out a system of ``power sharing'' with the nation's over 20 million blacks - who currently have no say in national affairs - without relinquishing total white power. With these aims in mind, Pretoria is doing just about everything to lure blacks to the ballot box. (Doing everything includes a rather complicated scheme that allows voters to cast ballots from now until Oct. 22, or on Oct. 26, the actual election day. The idea: to spread the voting over several days to lessen the chances of a successful boycott through intimidation.)

At the same time, Mr. Botha's National Party is frantic to keep its white constituents from defecting to the ultra-right-wing Conservative Party. White fears about the slumping economy and a possible sell-out to blacks are providing easy prey for the Conservatives, whose aim is to return to strict, old-style apartheid.

So, somewhat bizarrely, Pretoria is talking reform in black townships, but racial segregation in white suburbs.

This dichotomy leaves many analysts thinking it all could backfire. They believe that, despite intense campaigning, most blacks will boycott the ballots, Conservatives will make huge inroads, and the country will awaken Oct. 27 to a government bereft of workable policies.

``We are headed for a terrible period,'' warns Mr. Swilling. ``The state will be militarily strong, but politically weak, while the black opposition will be politically strong, but militarily weak. That is a recipe for violent, long-term stalemate.''

Part of a gradual process

Government officials see the elections as just the beginning of what they hope will be a gradual democratization process in black communities. It does not really matter how many people turn out at the polls, they say; the idea is just to get the local authorities (as black town councils are known) up and running.

Those councils, which were established in 1983, were supposed to answer black demands for political franchise. (Black areas had been administered by white municipalities.) They were part of a reform package that also created a tricameral Parliament with segregated houses for whites, Asians, and Coloreds. Blacks were excluded; they were supposed to seek representation at the national level in the tribal homelands created for them by the government.

Pretoria required the councils to be self-sustaining - no mean task in the mostly impoverished ghettos where the tax base is low and revenues negligible. Unable to function, councilors raised rents and service charges. Residents were furious. The rise sparked the violent unrest that convulsed black areas from 1984 to 1986 and just about destroyed the councils' authority.

That is when South Africa's military stepped in with the classic counterrevolutionary strategy of ``taking out'' political activists and trying to win over the population. Part of the hearts-and-minds campaign called for a revised approach to reform, one that finally acknowledged the councils' financial dilemma and the legitimacy crisis it caused them.

Black councilors are now included in Regional Services Councils (RSCs) - multiracial bodies that funnel tax money from white-owned businesses into the various municipalities. In black townships, those funds go to paving roads, installing sewage systems, and improving recreational facilities. They also enhance the councils' images.

``Government must be seen on the ground to be working for the people,'' explains a military member of the State Security Council, a Cabinet-level body that advises the President. ``They must be convinced the black local authorities are going to look after them.''

Step 2 in Pretoria's plan

Such convincing is crucial to continuing Pretoria's next stage of reform. After the 1984-86 upheavals, security and government planners decided blacks also needed to be included in some sort of limited national decision-making body. Hence Botha's proposed council to rewrite the Constitution.

But since the plan was perceived as being imposed from the top, even conservative black leaders were loathe to participate. The government switched to a ``bottom-up'' strategy, one that envisons getting blacks into the system at the bottom to start pushing them further up. The town council elections are the first step, which is why Pretoria is pushing so hard for their recognition.

The idea then is to have councilors meet in nine regional electoral colleges to choose representatives for the multiracial constitutional council. White, Asian, and Colored municipalities also are supposed to pick delegates, as are homeland administrators.

``You can't build a democratic system all at once,'' says Information Minister Stoeffel van der Merwe. ``You have to develop it piece by piece. A good turnout at the polls will be a positive development for civilized democratic government.''

In the 1983 elections for local authorities, not many blacks bought the argument. Although participation varied by township, only about 21 percent of eligible blacks cast a ballot. The government says the low turn-out was because of ignorance about the poll and intimidation by radicals. This time, Pretoria is pulling out all the stops to promote the vote - as well as cracking down even harder on activists.

Many people aren't convinced

Despite all this careful calculating and rethinking, large chunks of both the black and white communities have rejected the government's reform strategy. For starters, Pretoria does not have the resources to co-opt large numbers of blacks to convince them to participate, political analysts say.

Anti-apartheid activists insist that, despite a 27-month-old state of emergency and the gagging of many opposition organizations, political consciousness is still alive and kicking. Township dwellers have become too politicized, they say, to quash their awareness.

A young academic from So-weto, the sprawling black township outside Johannesburg, explains it this way: ``The uprising in 1984-86 was like a school of politics. We know those councilors don't represent us, that they are part of the apartheid state. The whites still will hold the power after the election, so why should we vote? That message is going out everywhere, all over the community.''

On the other hand, many whites think the creation of multiracial bodies like the RSCs was a huge concession to blacks - too huge. They are moving to the Conservative Party view that all this ultimately must lead to black majority rule.

Fears of more violence

Perhaps more immediate is the concern that the country may be headed for another period of protracted violence. That is because every local authority in South Africa is flat broke, if not running at a deficit. While RSCs provide money for high-profile improvements, the councils still get operating revenues from rents and tariffs.

But widespread, activist-organized rent boycotts, among other things, are bankrupting many of them. Soweto's council, for instance, is about $65 million in arrears because of a boycott. This means that after the elections, councilors probably will have to raise public service rates in the townships, says Steven Friedman of the South African Institute of Race Relations. ``And if they go up significantly,'' he warns, ``it could be 1984 all over again.''

Where parties stand on reform (in their own words) National Party: Reform means changes in the political, economic, and social systems with a view to eliminating problems in these systems and creating conditions under which all citizens can enjoy maximum prosperity. All groups should participate in the political process in a way that makes domination by any impossible.

Progressive Federal Party: Reform means constitutional restructuring, agreed upon by representatives of all groups in society, to enable all South Africans to participate in the political process; the removal of race as a criterion for rights and responsibilities; the end to all separation and discrimination.

Conservative Party: Reform is a public relations gimmick to cloak the real intention of a weak government: to surrender South Africa piece by piece. The CP is not prepared under any circumstances to negotiate the future of whites with any other nation of whatever color.

New Republic Party: Reform means abolishing all discriminatory legislation enacted since 1948. Reforms are too few and far between, and are introduced without thought for the consequences. Blacks should be in Parliament as soon as there is an interim measure to create a climate for negotiating a long-term solution.

Herstigte Nasionale Party. Reform is meaningless unless used in such a way as to indicate what is to be reformed and how it is to be reformed. Reform at an accelerated pace is in fact revolution. All reform should be stopped in South Africa until law and order is restored. The political aspirations of blacks should be confined to their own peoples. Source: South African Digest

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