South African Blacks Ask Why They Should Vote

WHEN black South Africans voted in general elections for the first time in their lives last April, millions waited in mile-long lines for hours to cast their ballots for a new democratic age. But now that local elections, which will bring blacks unprecedented municipal power, are approaching, interest is low.

So low, in fact, that politicians wonder if anyone will turn up at all.

Disenchantment with unfulfilled promises by the black majority government of President Nelson Mandela, inadequate voter education, and confusion over what this poll means threaten to keep people away and even delay the vote planned for October. Nearly one month into registration, South Africans appear reluctant to sign up for the elections that will have the biggest impact on their lives.

In black townships such as this rural one, a two-hour drive west of Johannesburg, electoral officials trudging in the rain from shack to shack encountered confusion and suspicion about the poll.

Many of the impoverished and illiterate residents voiced fears that registration would mean greater vigilance by police. Others said they had already voted Mr. Mandela into power and did not understand why a second poll was necessary.

Still others expressed anger with the African National Congress (ANC)-led coalition government for not meeting campaign promises to improve the quality of their miserable living standards.

''I didn't get a house, running water, or electricity,'' complained one elderly woman, Gladys, gesturing at her leaking tin shack. ''Plus, they still don't pick up the rubbish.''

She looked impassive as the electoral official explained that such matters were more easily solved on the local level, especially if black candidates with similar concerns were chosen as councillors.

In Gauteng Province -- which takes in the highly populous and politicized Johannesburg townships that are traditional ANC strongholds -- only about 11,000 of the 3 million potential electorate registered in the first fortnight. Gauteng Premier Tokyo Sexwale said the slow rate of registration might jeopardize the holding of elections if not enough people signed up by the April 26 deadline.

ANC officials are worried about their organizational disarray on the grass-roots level, as was clear at the party's national congress in the city of Bloemfontein in December. Delegates named Cheryl Carolus, a dynamic young woman with a reputation for organizational acumen, as the party's new deputy secretary-general to try to whip the party machine into shape. One cause for concern is that the so-called civics associations, once linked to the ANC, may defiantly field their own candidates.

Some Western diplomats believe that the former ruling National Party will improve on its poor showing in the national elections, and build on an organized support base, especially among the mixed race and Indian communities largely hostile to ANC rule.

''They may have less supporters than the ANC, but they will probably be very organized,'' said one Western diplomat.

Fears abound over what will happen in the volatile Zulu heartland of KwaZulu-Natal, where one-fourth of the country's 40 million people live and where factional violence has not abated. There is a strong possibility that separatists, who engaged in intimidation during the general elections, may try to disrupt voting on the local level, too.

While electoral officials hope the pace of registration will pick up, they are already considering whether to extend the three-month registration period. The local elections group co-chairman, Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, said a possible extension for Gauteng Province, for instance, would have to be decided by the central government.

The national elections, while hailed by international observers as a triumph for democracy, were a shambles organizationally. Millions of ballots went missing, the important Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party only entered at the last minute, causing great confusion, and the main parties horse-traded at vote-counting stations to negotiate a final result acceptable to all.

This time, budget constraints have limited voter education. Another problem is a lack of time for people to arrange the necessary identity documents to register, but the Home Affairs Department is working to simplify the process.

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