De Klerk woos blacks in uphill campaign

January 24, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

VENTERSDORP, South Africa -- President Frederick W. de Klerk's political road show drove right through this town, past the signs calling for a white homeland, and headed out into the flat fields of corn that surround it.

Proving that he has learned the new math of South African politics, Mr. de Klerk bypassed the white Afrikaners who were the backbone of his National Party as it ruled the country for the last 45 years. Instead, he went in search of support from blacks, who are expected to make up 80 percent of the voters in the April 27 election.

Afrikaners own the farms in this area, but they and their families are far outnumbered by the blacks who work for them. So, when Mr. de Klerk stepped onto the back of a truck decorated with hay bales to look like a stage, the audience of about 500 was about 80 percent black.

In some ways, it was just a studio audience for what is clearly a made-for-TV campaign. But there was no mistaking the image Mr. de Klerk wanted to project when the campaign coverage hit the TV screens -- the party of apartheid is trying to change.

With the trip that began Friday, Mr. de Klerk entered the territory of the country's right wing, driving through the hometown of Eugene Terre Blanche, leader of the ultra-right Afrikaner

Resistance Movement.

It was here two years ago that Mr. Terre Blanche led an assault against Mr. de Klerk. Two right-wingers died when police opened fire.

Today, many whites support the Conservative Party that is demanding a white homeland. Those right-wing votes counted when only whites could vote. But now they are of little concern to Mr. de Klerk. National Party strategists figure that if those people vote in the April 27 election, they will have nowhere else to go but the National Party.

Deciding factor

Black votes are going to determine this election. And unless the National Party can make some inroads into what polls show is a huge lead for Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), then Mr. de Klerk, co-holder (with Mr. Mandela) of the Nobel Peace Prize, the man who began the process that led to a new constitution and nonracial elections, could be reduced to a historical footnote.

So he came to this school for the children of farm workers. Those children were in the audience, but most of it was made up of the workers, many of them trucked in on the back of flatbed rigs.

Black farm workers are not highly politicized like their counterparts in urban townships, where a visit by Mr. de Klerk would undoubtedly provoke demonstrations and harassment -- not the image the National Party is after.

In rural areas, though, the black audience is almost guaranteed to be more receptive. Living in shacks and small houses on the farms, their lives still are at the mercy of their white employers.

Interviewed after Mr. de Klerk's talk Friday, the black farm workers made clear that they weren't forced to come. But they did get to take a couple hours off work. Many got free National Party T-shirts. More got visors, welcome in the hot summer sun. And after the speeches, bushels of corn on the cob were handed out.

In his talk, mostly delivered in Afrikaans, the Dutch dialect of the original white settlers, then immediately translated into Tswana, the African language spoken by most of the black farm workers, Mr. de Klerk hammered away at the ANC.

Dangerous strategy

In some ways, this seems like a dangerous strategy, as there can be no doubt that the ANC and Mr. Mandela have an immense popularity among almost all South African blacks, even those who might vote for some other party. Paying due respect might be a wiser course.

Then again, Mr. de Klerk and the National Party have little to lose. Recent polls put the ANC's total vote at close to two-thirds of the total, with the National Party below 20 percent.

Mr. de Klerk's speech tried to rid the National Party of its apartheid past, while linking the ANC with violence during the anti-apartheid struggle and pointing up its close ties to the South African Communist Party.

"The National Party is the new National Party," he said. "What was between us and you is now behind us. We need each other. We live together. We have to pursue new paths together. Now we can build a new South Africa.

"You may ask, what does the new National Party want to do for us? Ask that of the other parties. You have a choice. Ask the ANC. Who burns peoples' houses? Who organizes school disruptions? Who suggests intimidation, telling you what to buy and what not to buy?" he demanded.

"ANC," a woman shouted out.

Attacking the ANC

Mr. de Klerk hit the ANC's ties with the Communists, claiming this will deter investment in South Africa.

"My message is that, under the ANC, you may be happy for a year, but then the country will have no more money and you will grow poorer every day. But under the National Party, we will have new industry, new jobs. People will put their money here because they know they will make a profit on it.

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