Election in S. Africa could be test of reform

February 16, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Staff Writer

POTCHEFSTROOM, South Africa -- An election for a single seat in Parliament from this town where no black stays after sundown could test political reform in South Africa.

The election pits President Frederik W. de Klerk's National Party candidate against a candidate from the rival white Conservative Party, which wants to stop reforms and is luring many whites from Mr. de Klerk's support base.

Voting has been taking place the past three weeks. The polls will close Wednesday, and the mood seems to be much against Mr. de Klerk.

One young woman with a fresh-scrubbed, girl-next-door look standing under the trees at Potchefstroom University puts it plainly enough.

"De Klerk doesn't feel anything for my future," said Riettle van Rooyen, 19, a student at Mr. de Klerk's alma mater. "Is he an Afrikaner? I don't see him as an Afrikaner because he associates with the Communists."

Conservative whites who were happy under apartheid have been angry with Mr. de Klerk since he began negotiations about the country's future with black political organizations, including Nelson Mandela's African National Congress and the South African Communist Party.

Those feelings have attracted them to the Conservative Party, ,, which is opposed to reforms that would put power in the hands of South Africa's black majority.

Many people consider the election a barometer of white opinion throughout the country on the political reforms pursued by Mr. de Klerk.

The election comes at a critical time in the battle between the National Party, which has run the country since 1948, and the Conservatives, who say they now represent the hopes and aspirations of whites.

If the "Nats" lose the seat, which they have held for seven decades, it is believed they also could lose momentum for the process of drafting a new constitution and building a new democratic government.

"This election isn't about a seat in Parliament," said Theuns Kruger, the National Party candidate. "What matters is that this town should send a positive message to the country."

He said: "The Conservative Party represents the ugly side of the Afrikaner, that side connected to apartheid and its abuses."

His opponent, Andries Beyers, is an old-style politician who says the only problem with apartheid is that it was abandoned before it had a chance to work.

He accused Mr. de Klerk of "handing over the country to the ANC," and he believes most whites stand with him in opposition to that course, especially Afrikaners, the descendants of South Africa's Dutch settlers. Afrikaners are three-fifths of the country's white population of 5 million, and they are 90 percent of the population of Potchefstroom.

The Conservative Party is hoping to attract those people by offering apartheid by another name: self-determination. The party says the only way for whites to survive in South Africa is in a climate where they can govern themselves.

"Power-sharing sounds good, but the fact is there is only space for one at the top," Mr. Mulder said. Blacks would be at the top in a democratic South Africa where everyone has an equal vote, he said, because they outnumber whites 6-1.

The Conservatives' solution is a white fatherland, mainly for Afrikaners but also for other whites who believe in a separate white state.

Mr. Mulder said the white state could be smaller than the existing South Africa. He said the borders are negotiable, but his young supporters on the Potchefstroom campus -- which could swing the election -- showed no inclination to negotiate changes with blacks.

"This is our country; we paid for this country with blood," said Dirk Hermann, 20, a personnel management student. "It's not negotiable for us."

He called Nelson Mandela a racist because the ANC leader wants a black-majority government. He said that if blacks were to run the country, there would be wholesale discrimination against whites.

Mr. de Klerk has sought to assure whites that he would negotiate a deal in which they are protected from abuses by a black government.

The president made a special campaign appearance here last Thursday to deliver that message to Potchefstroom's 24,000 white voters. But it is unclear whether his assurances will work.

"The National Party is going to lose this election," predicted Zacharia Molekane, the ANC leader for the region that includes Potchefstroom. "Whites are going to vote for the Conservative Party because they are used to the old South Africa. . . . When we talk of the Afrikaner, we talk of people who have been brainwashed for many years."

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