The Troubled Last Days of a Ruling Minority

S. African whites approach poll reticent about apartheid and fearful of violence, but resigned

SOUTH Africa's white minority, at 5 million the largest and most affluent in Africa, views the country's elections with a mixture of anxiety and resignation - but not without hope.

More than four decades of apartheid turned white South Africans into the pariahs of the world and eventually made the price for maintaining their position of power and privilege over an increasingly restive black majority too high in economic, psychological, and social terms.

Four years after President Frederik de Klerk discarded the apartheid albatross and embarked on a negotiated settlement with representative black leaders, it is difficult to find any whites who admit to ever having supported apartheid.

Many whites now see apartheid as the cause of the country's economic and cultural isolation. They hope that if the formidable problems of political violence and economic reconstruction can be successfully addressed, a better future is possible for all South Africans.

But when the conflict in strife-torn Natal Province reached the streets of Johannesburg, the country's commercial center, on March 28, the white community fell into a state of near panic.

Talk of survival

Discussing whether there will be turmoil before or after the the country's first all-race elections scheduled for April 26-28 - and how to survive it - has become the main topic of conversation at dinner parties and in locker rooms.

In affluent neighborhoods of Johannesburg, such as Sandton, private security vans patrol streets lined with high walls - often topped with razor-wire and concealing a pair of formidable watchdogs. (Stumping for the ANC in a white neighborhood, Page 20.)

Apartheid's social engineering has ensured that whites have acquired the best land, but the rigid residential segregation of the apartheid era is gradually breaking down.

Most whites - probably a majority, but at least 40 percent - support Mr. De Klerk in his efforts to wipe clean the slate of the past and cooperate with ANC President Nelson Mandela and the ANC to undo the apartheid legacy and build a united nation.

Somewhere between 25 and 35 percent of whites are likely to cast their vote for the relatively moderate right-wing leader, Gen. Constand Viljoen, who registered in February his new Freedom Front party for the election. Since General Viljoen opted to demonstrate support for an Afrikaner homeland through the ballot box, the country's 40,000 or so white farmers have fallen in behind him.

Between 15 and 20 percent of whites are expected to vote for the Democratic Party (DP), which appears to have been gaining support in recent weeks. Less than 1 percent are expected to support the African National Congress (ANC), which is seen by most whites as pro-black with dangerous links to outdated socialist policies.

But an overwhelming majority of whites accept that the ANC will win an outright majority in the poll, which they see as a liberation election rather than one about issues and the future. Many white voters buy De Klerk's argument that they can help stop the ANC winning a two-thirds majority, which would enable the ANC to write the constitution alone.

White businessmen, who dominate the economy and argue for policies that will sustain economic growth, have established an election fund to promote voter education and political tolerance. They fear state intervention in the economy if militant socialists gained the upper hand in the ANC, but are relatively satisfied with the economic view that prevails in current ANC leadership circles.

Business support for the DP

``I think they are realistic enough to realize that they cannot govern successfully without our cooperation,'' says a business executive in the mining industry.

As a group, businessmen hedge their bets about the future, and some give financial support to the ANC, the ruling National Party, and the DP. ``The DP represents the values we stand for - free enterprise, economic growth, and private ownership. Unlike the NP and the ANC, they also have a track record,'' says the business executive.

When addressing white businessmen, De Klerk struggles to convince his audience why South Africa can escape the fate of other African countries that have disintegrated rapidly after independence and been subjected to repressive and dictatorial rule.

``There is no other country in Africa with such a strong civil society, well-organized Christian churches, an independent and outspoken media, and a well-established private sector,'' he recently told a group of anxious Natal businessmen on a campaign visit.

The NP would strengthen such institutions, he said. ``We are the strongest instrument available to assure that the value system, which we all share, prevails.''

Fanie Kok, a successful accountant in the predominantly right-wing town of Standerton in the Eastern Transvaal, buys De Klerk's argument. He says he will vote for the NP because they are best-equipped to promote a transfer of power to a trained and economically empowered majority.

``I have no problems with a mixed local government here,'' he said. ``But we need five years or so to train [black] people so that they can acquire the necessary skills to run a town.''

A recently published opinion poll conducted by Markinor polling agency for the state-controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation found that 90 percent of whites were prepared to accept an ANC government as long as they could be sure of maintaining their standard of living. But 63 percent, when questioned further, believed they would be worse off under an ANC government, and only 33 percent believed they would not be worse off.

Most whites who have emigrated over the past three decades have done so because they saw a long-term deterioration in living standards, education, and job opportunities - rather than because of their loathing for apartheid. Those who remain are less concerned about black rule than about rising levels of violent crime.

A diverse white community

``What I worry about is the unraveling of the fabric of society that has taken place under apartheid, but particularly in the last few years,'' says a Johannesburg businesswoman and mother of three. ``What kind of life awaits our children?''

For a beleaguered minority, the white community is surprisingly diverse. In the ANC, key whites like Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils, and Gill Marcus - mainly members of the tiny South African Communist Party - play key roles in decisionmaking. Whites also play a major role in the plethora of human rights and development organizations, which have bridged the old order of apartheid and the new society that is in the process of being forged.

An opinion poll published on March 23 by the Human Sciences Research Council and the Institute for Multi-Party Democracy found that 77 percent of whites were ``determined'' to vote compared to 67 percent of blacks. This, despite the fact that only 20 percent of whites felt ``happy or excited'' about the election compared to 70 percent of blacks.

De Klerk's surprise 70-30 victory in the March 1992 whites-only referendum of reform may have been partly due to his formidable NP propaganda machine. But it was a turning point in the country because it was the first time in South Africa's 340-year history that whites were prepared to entrust their future to a leader who wanted to share power with the black majority.

``I realized some time ago that the most important contribution one could make to the future was to help build a nonracial democracy,'' says businessman Alex Anderson who, as head of the ANC branch in Sandton, is one of the few whites willing to back up their words with their money.

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