In South Africa: a blow to Botha. Right-wing election gains, black boycott threaten reforms

Militant blacks and ultra right-wing whites made significant gains in Wednesday's municipal elections - a situation political analysts say could result in dangerous stalemate. Although official figures were not available by press time, South African blacks apparently heeded calls by anti-apartheid activists to boycott the poll. An estimated 14 percent of eligible black voters cast ballots, compared with 21 percent the last time elections for town councilors were held, in 1983.

Analysts contend the low turnout signals defeat - or at least a serious setback - to the government's counterinsurgency strategy and its offshoot constitutional reform program. The military's counterinsurgency plan calls for ``neutralizing political agitators,'' then co-opting a critical mass of blacks to get them to join the system.

Joining the system includes negotiating a new political dispensation, and President Pieter Botha saw this vote as a first step in that direction. Mr. Botha wants to use local government officials to build up a new constitution from below. The idea is to work out a power-sharing plan with the country's 28 million blacks - who have no vote in national matters - without relinquishing full white control.

Botha's reform plan could further be crippled by the success of the Conservative Party, which advocates a return to strict apartheid. The Conservatives won a majority of municipalities in the all-important Transvaal Province. In doing so, they could block money going to upgrade decaying black townships - a vital part of Botha's heart-and-minds campaign.

``Whatever may have remained of the state security strategy's reform side is dead,'' says Mark Swilling, a University of Witwatersrand political scientist. ``What's left is a security policy based simply on keeping a lid on the revolution. That means harsher repression by whites, greater militancy by blacks, and escalating violence.''

To be sure, Pretoria's ``securicrats'' and constitutional planners see it differently. Getting black town councils - many of which collapsed during the 1984-86 uprising that engulfed black areas - up and running was the main point of the poll. As one official put it, ``I don't care if these councilors are elected by one vote. I just want them at their desks.''

Predictably, all sides are claiming victory. The stakes were high: Pretoria poured a lot of money into education and propaganda campaigns to get people to the polls. It also held 12 days of ``prior voting'' earlier this month to minimize intimidation by activists.

Unofficially, some 435,000 of 3.1 million of eligible blacks voted. (Activists point out that these eligible voters represent a fraction of the adult black population.) But Pretoria isn't figuring the turnout based on eligible voters. Almost half of the wards had only one candidate - who thus is elected automatically. So officials use as a base the 1.4 million voters who could choose between candidates and get a 29 percent result - or success.

``A significant percentage voted for peaceful evolutionary change,'' said Constitutional Development and Planning Minister Chris Hunis. ``The people have shown that the constitutional structures ... are acceptable to them.''

But anti-apartheid activists contend that not having enough candidates is another gauge of the boycott's effectiveness. Many say they are surprised by the degree of ``nonparticipation,'' given the constraints on the movement. Under the 27-month-old state of emergency, thousands of activists have been detained, 18 organizations gagged, the call for an election boycott made illegal.

Still, the message got out, mostly through underground channels, trade unions, and clergymen. In Soweto, Johannesburg's huge black township, only about 29,000 or 11.2 percent of 258,000 voters cast ballots. A spokesman for the South African Council for Churches makes clear how government opponents interpret the results: ``We want to suggest to the securicrats and the army of constitutional planners who run this country that it is about time they let rational analysis take over from their wishful thinking.''

``We expect the government to say to the world that they are going to talk to elected black officials and that they won't speak to the leaders whom they classify as radicals,'' he says. ``We hope the world won't be fooled.''

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