South African blacks vote with whites Minor point at issue in historic first

May 21, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- It wasn't exactly the vote that black South Africans have been dreaming of, but it was the first time in history that blacks could vote alongside whites.

It wasn't the chance to choose a new non-racist government or choose between Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk for president, but to many people it was at least a start.

The issue: whether the main street of a funky, arty, laid-back neighborhood called Yeoville should be one-way east or west.

"It's significant, but at the same time it's very trivial," said Lerato Khathi, a black second-year law student who works nights as a waitress in a cafe. "A lot of black people don't drive anyway."

Yeoville, near Johannesburg's downtown business center, is one of the most racially mixed sections of town. It has been comfortably integrated for years, even before that was legal. About a third of its 20,000 residents are black.

Once an all-white area, Yeoville has become a popular neighborhood for working-class and middle-class blacks, who want pleasant, affordable housing in an area with few racial hang-ups. Many former exiles who returned from Europe or the

United States in the past two years bought modest homes along the narrow streets of Yeoville, within walking distance of trendy little shops, nightclubs and cafes.

"Yeoville is leading the way once again," said Martin Sweet, the white City Council member who represents the neighborhood. "We were the first constituency to open the pools. We were the first to integrate the buses, and now we're the first to give blacks the chance to vote."

He stood at the entrance to the Yeoville Recreation Center yesterday evening, greeting black and white voters as they came to the polling station and beaming at the idea of this latest stride in race relations. He said he had received permission from the Johannesburg City Council to make the referendum non-racial, which is now permitted under South African law.

"I can't comment on the nation, and I can't comment on 40 years of apartheid, but I can tell you about Yeoville," he said with obvious glee.

"We're hoping Yeoville will be the pacesetter for the nation. There have been no incidents of violence, and black voters have conducted themselves in exactly the same way as whites."

Several hundred blacks turned out for the referendum, saying they were glad for the chance to finally vote.

"This is the first time. I feel very happy about that," said Floyd Kekane, a 40-year-old taxi driver who cast his first-ever ballot in his native country.

"I'm happy about the new South Africa," he said. "Even if the change is not enough, this shows that it's coming."

But most black Yeoville residents were not turning cartwheels at the prospect of voting on the traffic flow down Rocky Street.

"Big deal," said a young black woman in blue jeans and a T-shirt as she whisked past the polling station without stopping. "From the nation's point of view, it doesn't make a difference."

Her view was shared by a dozen middle-class blacks interviewed near the polling station, who did not vote and who made it clear that the liberation struggle was waged over grander issues.

"Personally, I think it's not really worth it to vote," said Hilton Twolo, who works for a trade union. "We want to vote for the future of South Africa, not about which way the road goes."

"I don't have a car. Why should I worry about the traffic?" said Rhino Moyo, a well-dressed black man who works as a credit analyst. "The people who are worried about this are the businessmen."

The issue at the heart of the referendum is whether traffic flows in a direction that is good for business along Rocky Street, and the Yeoville Trade Association says it does not.

The traders say they have lost 20 percent of their business since the Johannesburg City Council changed the direction of the one-way street last year so that the after-work traffic no longer passes their shops.

"If the traders lose business, the land owners are going to lose property value," said Boetie Shifren, chairman of the trade association. "A large influx of non-whites have moved into the area, and at the moment there's no problem, but if the value of property goes down, we're going to get the lower elements."

He said he thought most white voters understood that, while most blacks were voting because of the novelty of the referendum. "I don't think it really affects them that much," he said, since whites own most of the businesses.

Indeed, some white business owners escorted their black workers to the polling places and instructed them how to vote, in a ritual suggesting that the new South Africa still has a long way to go.

"They didn't explain to us what it's about," said Bonnie Phirri, one of six black taxi drivers brought to vote by their white bosses. "I don't really understand, but I'm going to vote 'yes,' " he said nonchalantly.

He was quickly corrected by Karen Schoenfeld, one of the owners of the taxi service, who explained why he would vote no. "Remember?" she said, with the tone of a school teacher prompting a child.

Then she ushered the drivers, all middle-aged men, into the polling place and waited for them to cast their historic votes.

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