S. African First: Mixed-Race Mayor

WHEN Frank Arendse became South Africa's first mixed-race mayor three months ago, he was aware that he was taking on a tough job.

"Under the apartheid system, we were puppets," says Mr. Arendse, a prison-guard-turned-businessman. He used to head a colored (mixed-race) advisory body in the small settlement of Groendal on the outskirts of this scenic town in the Cape's wine country. "But I have a reputation for getting things done, and I know that most of the black people support me," he concludes.

Arendse is a friendly and outspoken man with few airs or social graces. He gets straight to the point and acknowledges a joke with a broad smile and a hearty laugh. Franschoek, a small town with about 950 whites, 1,650 coloreds (a distinct, legally defined group here), and 200 black Africans, is one of perhaps five towns in the country where the white and mixed-race councils decided to merge.

But it is the first where the new multiracial council has elected a mixed-race mayor. With the demise of apartheid, one of the issues in the neighborhood is whether to remove the Groendal road sign - which demarcated the mixed-race residential area - and replace it with the "Welcome to Franschoek" sign outside the formerly whites-only town.

Many of the mixed-race inhabitants of Franschoek were forcibly removed from their homes in the integrated town center in the 1960s, when apartheid laws like the Group Areas Act were rigidly enforced to ensure racially segregated residential areas. The council has approved the decision to move the sign. It was Arendse's first victory.

"Things take time, but you will see a lot of things happening here in the new year," Arendse told the Monitor. "But to see real change, you must wait until April when the budget is drawn up."

The new multiracial council was formed after a law was passed last year that enabled white councils and their mixed-race counterparts to form joint forums. The law raised the prospect that mixed-race South Africans will gain a stronger platform from which to bargain for a larger share of town budgets. This will improve neighborhoods and uplift public facilities for them. (The law applies only to councils representing colored and Indian minorities, who were granted the vote in separate houses of parliamen t in 1983.)

Arendse was voted into office by six elected white councilors and six nominated mixed-race councilors, who were formerly members of the advisory body known as the Management Committee. The Management Committee could recommend that the white council make improvements in the mixed-race community, but it had no real say in the budget.

Arendse received eight votes, against four votes for a conservative white candidate, which means Arendse had the support of at least two white councilors. His critics claim that the election was undemocratic. According to the white town manager, Meyer Siebrits, conservative whites in Franschoek opposed his election on the grounds of his race.

"But things won't change," says one conservative white resident. "It is the town clerk [city manager] who has the power, and he will see that things are done properly."

Other whites say that they did not object to Arendse's race but insist that he was not the best person for the job. Some described his election as a cruel ploy to vote in a mixed-race mayor who did not have the experience to govern the town.

THE profile of the white population of Franschoek, rural homeland of Afrikaners descended from French Huguenots, has changed dramatically over the past five decades. Wine-grape growers whose children did not want to continue the tradition have sold out to private investors from overseas or to English-speaking South Africans looking for a tax write-off.

As a result, a once largely Afrikaner area has a majority of English-speaking white inhabitants today. The former mayor, Arthur McWilliams-Smith, was an English-speaking white who worked closely with Arendse and encouraged his efforts to improve conditions in the mixed-race community.

"I fought for the colored community, and [McWilliams-Smith] saw me as a person that gets things done," Arendse says.

In Groendal, most residents interviewed seemed pleased that Franschoek had a mixed-race mayor and said they were confident he would improve housing, roads, and public facilities there.

"Most of the people here are very excited and very proud that Franschoek has a colored mayor," said Abraham Farmer, a prison guard at nearby Victor Verster prison, where African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela spent his last months of captivity in a white guard's home. "I think the new mayor will be able to open many doors for us and will get more money for our community," Mr. Farmer said. "He will get more houses for our people, better roads and sporting facilities - and playgrounds for

the children."

There is no branch of the ANC in the town, but an unofficial ANC spokesman, Les Pfeiffer, says he opposed Arendse's accepting a nomination for mayor because he had not been elected by all the people of Franschoek. "I am not against him personally," says Mr. Pfeiffer, "but I think he has been used." Pfeiffer, a builder, took part in the joint forum to discuss the formation of a single, integrated council.

"The white council is trying to use him to solve the problems created by apartheid, but he will not be empowered to do so," Pfeiffer says. "He's got no power because the whites dominated for so many years. Why, now that he is mayor, should he be able to achieve things that he was not able to achieve before?" Pfeiffer insists on a single tax base for the whole community. "Change must come from the national level," he adds.

The new mayor has responded to critics in the mixed-race community by insisting that he is prepared to resign his seat and fight a nonracial contest for reelection that would include members of the small black community. He dismisses Pfeiffer's arguments as sour grapes. "We have to make a start somewhere," he says.

Arendse argues that he will succeed in persuading the white councilmen to invest in uplifting the mixed-race community because it is in their own interest to have a stable, integrated community.

He has initiated a new, low-cost housing development for all races in the Groendal area and has mediated between the local provincial authority and a small community of black squatters to ensure that they get affordable land to build houses.

"We, as a colored and black community, must show the whites that we can do the same as them," he says.

"By the time there is a democratic election we must have had experience in financial management and in administering the budget."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.