Racially mixed mayor is presiding over government of small white village


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

FRANSCHHOEK, South Africa -- Frank Arendse, the new mayor of this quaint little village, has earned a place in South African history. He is the first non-white person to head the government of a white town.

Mr. Arendse, 38, is "colored," which means he belongs to a racial classification created by the government for everyone who is not totally white, totally black or totally Indian. Somewhere in his family history, he says, there was an affair between a British soldier and a black woman from Madagascar.

In South Africa's racial hierarchy, the nation's 3 million coloreds are higher up the ladder than its 30 million blacks but not as high as whites, who have the most rights, privileges and wealth.

Franschhoek, a picturesque town at the base of a pine-topped mountain range, has been run by whites since it was settled in 1694 by Huguenots, French protestants fleeing persecution in Europe.

The old legacy of persecution may be what helps the people here to be more liberal-minded. But the selection of Mr. Arendse, a liquor store and disco owner from the adjacent colored community of Groendal, came as a shock to some of the local residents.

"The white people can't believe there's a colored mayor who rules the whole town," said Mr. Arendse, a small-framed man with light brown skin. "Some of the people say they don't accept me as mayor. But I'm not worried. I think what I must do is show that a colored skin can do what a white can."

He speaks in slow, careful English and explains that he is not entirely comfortable with it.

His first language is Afrikaans, the language of the Afrikaner people, white descendants of South Africa's original Dutch settlers. It is also the language of South Africa's colored people, the majority population group in the region known as "the Cape," which ends at the wind-swept Cape of Good Hope on Africa's southern tip.

Mr. Arendse was chosen last month to head a local government that serves both the white town of Franschhoek, population 1,200, and the nearby colored community of Groendal, population 3,500. Before last month, each community had its own town council -- the colored one advised the white, which made the decisions.

But, prodded by a liberal-minded outgoing mayor, Arthur McWilliams White, council members decided to experiment with an idea being discussed in many municipal areas of South Africa: a unified, racially mixed government.

Move to power-sharing

Some have already unified their councils in a start toward the sort of power-sharing arrangement that South Africa's reformers have in mind, although the reformers would change the balance more dramatically with the one-person, one vote principle.

Here, the two councils voted on Sept. 18 to unite and elect a single mayor to head a new 12-member panel, which consists of six whites and six coloreds.

Three weeks ago, Mr. Arendse was nominated by the black council he headed and won with eight votes, including those of two liberal whites. The white candidate lost with four.

Conservative whites complained immediately that Mr. Arendse was a poor choice and wasn't ready for the job, although he had served 12 years on the colored council and was its chairman.

"He's not qualified," said Jan Roux, a white council member who voted against Mr. Arendse.

"The thing people are worried about is that he doesn't have much experience," said Karel Pepler, whose butcher shop sits in the middle of a row of trendy French restaurants along Franschhoek's commercial strip.

"The mayor is not very important anyway," he shrugged. "The town clerk is more important." The town clerk is white and performs as sort of a town manager, although the council makes policy, and as mayor, Mr. Arendse gets a tie-breaking vote in addition to his regular vote.

Most coloreds were delighted by Mr. Arendse's election. "We're proud of him," said Gwen Riffel, a waitress at Le Quartier Francais, a fancy French restaurant. "There are no facilities in the township. We hope things like that will come right now."

But a few radical coloreds were critical. (There are only a few in conservative, church-going Groendal.) Jan Pfeiffer, a local activist with the African National Congress, called Mr. Arendse a puppet of the whites and said he was not democratically elected by the people of Franschhoek and Groendal.

"I don't see what the ANC wants further," responded the mayor, who says he has no political affiliation. "This is a step toward democracy. Before we became one council, coloreds were puppets. But we sit in the driver's seat now."

One of Mr. Arendse's first acts was to reassure nervous whites that having a colored man in the driver's seat didn't mean they were all headed for a crash.

Mr. Arendse offers the letter to a visitor during an interview in his sparsely furnished living room. A picture of the new mayor wearing his official red robe and medallion sits on the mantle piece of a stone fireplace.

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