THE ``colored'' (mixed-race) community, which suffered extreme injustices during the apartheid era, could deliver the ruling National Party's (NP) only outright victory in South Africa's all-race elections scheduled for next week.
It is one of the great ironies of the election campaign that the coloreds have come out increasingly in support of the party that invented apartheid and caused them untold humiliation and suffering.
The coloreds, who have always identified culturally, economically, and religiously with whites rather than blacks, constitute a majority (57 percent) of voters in the scenic Western Cape Province - one of nine provinces that will make up the ``new'' South Africa.
Nationally, the 1.8 million or so colored voters account for 9 percent of the voting population: Some 85 percent live in the Western Cape.
According to opinion polls, the Western Cape is the only province where President Frederik de Klerk's NP could win an overall majority. But the outcome is by no means certain.
The most recent opinion polls show that almost 40 percent of colored voters are either undecided or will not vote at all. Of the remainder, more than half support the NP, and most of the rest support Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC). About 12 percent appear to support the liberal Democratic Party.
``The colored people are in the classic bind of minorities who feel themselves to be vulnerable. They are between a rock and a hard place, and they appear to have chosen the rock,'' says Cape Town University political scientist David Welsh.
The coloreds were divided into seven different racial subgroups under apartheid's system of race classification, but they were treated as blacks (Africans) in most respects. Borderline cases were subjected to humiliating tests in apartheid's racial laboratories, which included the notorious ``pencil test'' to determine race through the texture of a person's hair.
Families were divided, and children from interracial marriages were stigmatized by the cruel laws outlawing mixed marriages and sexual relations across the color line.
The stunning scenic beauty of Cape Town's Table Mountain and sparkling Table Bay contrast sharply with the colored slums of the Cape Flats - a bleak and wind-swept expanse that joins the Cape Peninsula to the mainland of South Africa.
Although the colored community is an upwardly mobile consumer society, the working class is still trapped in a cycle of poverty, crime, and unemployment.
Most of the residents of the Cape Flats were removed from District Six - a vibrant community where white and colored lived side-by-side in a densely populated neighborhood on the slopes of Table Mountain.
District Six was destroyed by government edict in 1966. It took 13 years to forcibly remove the 40,000 or so mainly colored residents in an act of social engineering that has no parallel, even in apartheid's grim legacy of human injustice.
The only benefit accruing to the coloreds under the apartheid era was the declaration of the Western Cape as a ``colored preferential area,'' whereby influx control against blacks was rigidly applied, and coloreds were given preference for employment.
Perhaps the greatest historical injustice perpetrated against the coloreds during the apartheid era was the removal of the colored franchise - a legacy of the British colonial era - by the NP government in 1956.
In trying to boost its surprisingly large following among the coloreds, the NP has resorted to some rather blatant racist campaigning to feed colored fears of black rule.
``There has always been an undercurrent of anti-African racism in the colored community,'' says Professor Welsh.
The excesses of the apartheid era drove such a conservative community into taking on a black identity and joining anti-apartheid groups like the United Democratic Front, an ANC front that mobilized opposition to apartheid in the 1980s.
``I see myself as black because we were considered and treated as blacks under National Party rule,'' said Elize, a caller to Radio 702, a talk-radio station that invited listeners to express their views after a 90-minute interview on Wednesday with President De Klerk.
Mr. Mandela has tried to win over the colored community by promoting several colored ANC leaders to prominent positions in the organization. He also intervened in the leadership stakes to ensure that Alan Boesak, a former leader of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church and prominent anti-apartheid campaigner during the apartheid years, emerged as leader of the ANC in the Cape rather than a black African candidate.
But Dr. Boesak, who quit his church post after a highly publicized affair that led to the break-up of his marriage, appears to enjoy limited support among a large section of what remains a deeply religious and conservative community.
Mandela has blazed several campaign trails through the Cape in a bid to win colored voters with his personal stature and charisma, but appears to have had limited success.
``We know the pain and anger that the colored community suffered under apartheid when you were removed from homes in District Six,'' Mandela recently told an ANC election rally in the middle-class colored neighborhood of Retreat.
``Your homes were taken by the National Party government, and we say to you that this will never happen again,'' he added.
But Boesak's efforts to discredit the NP in the eyes of the colored community does not appear to have stemmed the tide of undecided colored voters opting for the devil they known rather than the devil they don't know.
``The NP remains barbaric, un-Christian, and un-Biblical,'' Boesak, an accomplished orator with overtones of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., told an ANC rally in the farming town of Paarl near Cape Town on Wednesday.
``In the ANC, we do not look down on others. We believe all people are created in the image of God,'' he said.
The most sensitive issue in the colored community is the policy of affirmative action, which the ANC advocates to correct the legacy of the apartheid era in the work place. ``It is clear to so-called colored people that when the ANC talks about affirmative action, it is talking about blacks. That is the reality of the situation,'' says Peter de Beer, a resident of Retreat who is among the many undecided voters.
``We understand that blacks [Africans] have been deprived under apartheid - but so have we,'' he says.
``We do not have high expectations that an ANC government will regard our needs as a priority. We are the jam in the sandwich.''