South African blacks resist `apartheid' vote

The second car from the end of train No. 9064 is what is known in this boisterous black township as the ``struggle'' coach. The car isn't all that different from others at rush hour, packed so tightly that people spill out windows and cling precariously to open doors. Except that it bobs.

It bobs and bounces like a boat in water because a full-blown anti-apartheid - ``struggle'' - rally is going on inside. A small man in a baggy, double-breasted suit is distributing leaflets that say ``DON'T VOTE,'' and singing a song about how town councilors are a bunch of dogs.

The commuters sing along with him and do a slow, rhythmic dance in place. ``Are you going to vote?'' yells the small man. ``No!'' his audience answers. ``Are you going to resist?'' he asks. ``Freedom!'' they roar.

So goes the fight over this month's municipal elections. Only in the black community, the battle isn't over whom to choose. It's about whether to vote at all.

For anti-apartheid activists, the decision is easy. They say the vote for councilors in racially segregated towns simply perpetuates apartheid. Participating in the polls, activists contend, confers legitimacy on a system that is illegitimate. Getting that message out, however, is the tough part.

That's because the government in Pretoria has been playing hardball by detaining thousands of opposition leaders, gagging anti-apartheid groups, and making illegal any call for an election boycott. At the same time, it has thrown millions of dollars for badly needed improvements into decaying townships to try to spruce up its image and win over residents.

Still, government opponents are finding ways to resist. Church organizations have linked up with unions and community associations to print and distribute anti-election pamphlets. Barred from calling public gatherings, activists give lectures on trains and at prayer meetings. Street committees - radical groups that virtually ruled townships during the unrest of 1984-86 - are quietly being revived to talk up ``noncollaboration.''

Although the anti-apartheid movement has a long history of boycotting elections, this one is especially significant. That's because Pretoria wants to use local government officials to build up a new constitution from below. The idea is to work out a power-sharing planwith the country's 28 million blacks - who have no vote in national matters - without giving up full white power.

So making local government unworkable, opponents contend, means taking the linchpin out of President Pieter Botha's new constitutional machinery. ``If the municipal elections don't succeed, Mr. Botha will be denied victory,'' says a member of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the country's biggest black labor federation.

Anti-apartheid activists didn't always see things this way. Even after blacks were removed from voter rolls in 1936, prominent groups such as the now-outlawed African National Congress (ANC) continued to advocate participation in government bodies in the hope of getting blacks reinstated.

By the early 1970s, however, it was clear that Pretoria wasn't going to budge. And a kind of all-or-nothing consensus emerged among many opposition organizations: Since the government insisted on retaining ultimate control for whites, dismembering apartheid from within was impossible. So the best strategy was to work from without - which meant boycotting all elections.

``Our primary power is located on the outside,'' insists Firoz Cachalia of the Transvaal Indian Congress. ``From outside, we're forcing them to grant us more space. Eventually, we'll get enough to space to threaten them.''

The ANC makes clear that this strategy still holds. ``Ensure that no one in your locality stands as candidates for the apartheid elections,'' urges one ANC leaflet circulating in townships. ``Those who defy the will of the people should meet with the full wrath of the people.''

South African police say the group has stepped up its policy of bombings to try to disrupt voting. There were a record 29 explosions last month, all of which police attribute to the ANC. As a result, the government is clamping down even harder, offering rewards for information leading to the arrest of insurgents; detaining and restricting more activists.

But that doesn't bother the likes of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who, along with other clergymen, has publicly has called for a boycott. Ministers from the South African Council of Churches (SACC) are ``educating'' local preachers in townships about election issues, getting them to open their churches for boycott meetings, and to display anti-election literature.

An SACC member says the council is also passing pamphlets to township street committees through its youth division and to shop stewards of Cosatu. ``We can't take for granted that people won't be swayed by the government's agenda,'' he explains. ``Their allegiance must constantly be won.''

The Cosatu connection, while relatively new, has become the boycott's biggest boon. For with its nationwide network of grass-roots organizations, the federation is probably the most effective anti-apartheid group still going. Cosatu ``comrades'' have been calling meetings in factories, threatening to strike employers who distribute campaign literature, making midnight forays to paint election billboards with big ``Viva ANC!'' signs.

With so much opposition activity forced underground, it's tough to know if the boycott message is getting across. For many blacks, that probably isn't necessary. Raised in a political culture of nonparticipation and ``educated'' by the 1984-86 uprising, ``we know these councilors are useless,'' snorts a resident of Mshenguvillie squatter camp.

Only about 21 percent of eligible blacks went to the ballot box when town councils were established in 1983. Government officials won't say publicly what they would consider to be a successful turnout; privately, they are hoping just to better the 1983 results.

Cosatu officers are pretty confident they can keep people from the polls: They are calling a work stay-away on Oct. 26, election day, and telling everyone to remain indoors. Their big problem is ``prior votes,'' a system that allows voting from Oct. 10 to the 22nd. The idea is that spreading the vote over several days will make it harder for activists to monitor people's movements.

None of that fazes the crowd on train No. 9064, however. There's no question of allegiance, as someone starts a song in Zulu about the ANC. By now the sun is setting; the sky, broad brushstrokes of purple-pink. People waiting on platforms smile as the train goes hurtling past, and they catch a few of the words:

``[Joe] Slovo and [Oliver] Tambo are communists;

``They are our comrades;

``They are our leaders;

``One day they will return and rule.''

Second of an occasional series on South Africa's key local elections. First article ran Oct. 14.

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