S. Africa's Ballot Calculus

Could DeKlerk's National Party defeat the favored ANC in a nonracial election?

LATER this month multilateral talks will reconvene to discuss what many hope will be a firm timetable for establishing an interim government and holding the first democratic, nonracial, national election in South Africa.

The election, expected within a year, will be for a constituent assembly vested with the task of drawing up a new constitution and acting as an interim parliament. What are the likely outcomes of that election?

African journalist Allister Sparks avows: "It is a ... certainty that the ANC [African National Congress] is going to win the first one-person, one-vote election and so be in a position to form the next government." That seems to be the conventional wisdom. However, a closer reading of the evidence, including recent opinion polls, leaves the impression that the ANC's march to victory will not be effortless.

It is quite likely that President Frederik de Klerk, leader of the National Party (NP), with his allies, may actually win a nonracial democratic election in South Africa. Even if the ANC and NP were part of a government of national unity, as has been proposed, a strong showing in the election would give the NP a powerful hold over the constitutional design process. And many pollsters and observers have ignored likely election day turnouts.

Seventy-four percent of South Africans are classified as black under the now-repealed Population Registration Act; 14 percent are white. The mixed-race or "colored" represent 9 percent of the total population, Asians another 3 percent.

However, due to the vast imbalance of blacks and whites under 18 years of age, the actual "voting-age population" reduces the black share of the electorate to 68 percent and increases the white share to 19 percent.

Added to this is the problem of identity papers, which will be required to prove voting age and citizenship. The latest figures, from the end of 1992, show that while all non-black South Africans have these papers, only 72 percent of blacks have them. Up to 4 million black South Africans could be disenfranchised.

Some 20 million South Africans may still be eligible to vote, but two important factors will affect turnout and further depress the black share of the total vote. In elections it is usual that illiterate voters turnout in fewer numbers than their literate counterparts. Recent figures put the illiteracy rate at 31 percent among the black community compared with only 1 percent for whites. This is largely due to 40 years of segregated and unequal apartheid education.

Secondly, in a country racked by a history of political violence, intimidation could sadly play a major role in the first nonracial South African election. Without strict controls, ANC voters in KwaZulu and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) voters in the Pretoria-Johannesburg area could have difficulty in reaching the polls. The government has drawn up a package of measures to curb intimidation, including having international monitors and "depoliticizing" polling stations, but such measures many be fruitless i n the more violence-torn areas. In one poll, 16 percent of black South Africans said they would not vote if there was the possibility of violence.

These combined factors indicate that the effective breakdown of the vote on election day could be approximately: 60 percent black, 25 percent white, 12 percent "colored," and 3 percent Asian.

The ANC has a solid base of popular support in the non-Zulu speaking black community and expect to win 60 percent to 65 percent of the black vote, but surprisingly they have failed to make any real inroads into the "colored" and Asian communities' votes. In fact, Mr. De Klerk and the NP dominate opinion poll readings for these communities while at the same time commanding 60 percent to 65 percent of the white vote.

Most observers estimate the NP will also take 5 percent to 10 percent of the more rural, conservative black vote from the Transvaal and Orange Free State. Their combined vote may well be more than 30 percent, compared with an ANC figure of 40 percent to 45 percent of the national vote.

Taking into account these figures, control of the new constituent assembly may hinge on the votes for the minor parties. Under the proposed proportional representation system, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's IFP is likely to take at least 12 percent of the national vote (and therefore more than 12 percent of the Parliamentary seats) from their KwaZulu/ Natal Province stronghold.

If Mr. Buthelezi's conservative IFP were willing to strike a deal with the NP, their center-right alliance could have a simple majority in the Assembly. In short, the NP could retain its hold on government.

What the international community must take note of, and if possible seek to alleviate, is the totally uneven playing field on which the election campaign in South Africa will be fought. The NP has almost all the advantages: administration of the state apparatus, considerable experience of the electoral process, financial dominance, and control of the state-run TV plus the support of the majority of the press.

Most ANC supporters, especially the younger ones, have always been led to believe that the ANC would have an easy walk to victory in a democratic South Africa; thus, the major problem facing the ANC is complacency. The more radical supporters are likely to react in disbelief if the ANC fails to win a plurality of the vote. Civil strife might be high if the black majority sees a white-led government, even if that government has been elected through a "democratic" process.

President Clinton, who has established good relations with Nelson Mandela, needs to press for an independent electoral commission in South Africa and a comprehensive team of international election observers.

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