De Klerk making first Soweto visit

March 17, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

SOWETO, South Africa -- "The National Party? No, they do not have an office in Soweto. Their office is in Pretoria," Philemon Madi said of the longtime ruling party of South Africa.

But all Mr. Madi had to do was step back and look up at the four-story office building above him.

There was the National Party office, with a sign proclaiming its presence in bright blue and green colors.

The surprise was evident on his face. "What are they doing there? They should not be here," he said.

For Mr. Madi, 33, it was the same sort of awakening to the new South Africa that many whites have been getting for the last four years with banned and banished figures showing up on television and in the newspapers.

The National Party has been doggedly campaigning for votes among the country's blacks, who will be voting for the first time April 26-28.

Today, President Frederick W. de Klerk makes his first campaign stop in Soweto.

Most think it is his first visit ever to this amalgam of black townships that now make up South Africa's -- perhaps sub-Saharan Africa's -- largest city.

But his party has had this office in Soweto open for several months. And though Mr. de Klerk has had problems with hecklers and demonstrators at many of his non-white campaign stops, the office has been relatively free of intimidation.

That is evidently due to a deal worked out with the African National Congress, which has its own office a few doors away.

The ANC knows that any damage to the NP offices would also damage the ANC's reputation as a proponent of multiparty democracy.

But, at that ANC office, it was clear that it was not that easy to hew to the party line.

"It hurts me personally," said a soldier in the ANC's army. "Suddenly they want to campaign here after so many years of doing nothing for the people. They claim that they have changed, but they are still the people who have been wrong."

Down a hallway, the National Party office looked like almost any busy American neighborhood political headquarters -- cheap furniture, unopened boxes of brochures, ringing telephones, crowded bulletin boards, an atmosphere of semi-chaos.

Inside, Vronda Banda, the information officer, offered a different touch.

After all, it is not every day that someone decides to support a party that put him in jail for eight years.

As an ANC soldier, he was trained in East Germany and sent back to his homeland 1982 to organize opposition to the government's apartheid policy.

Arrested and charged with treason, he became a fellow inmate of ANC leader Nelson Mandela in the Robben Island prison.

When he came out of prison in 1990, Mr. Banda said, he was surprised to see so many members of the Communist Party high up in the ANC leadership: "They are just using the ANC as a vehicle for their socialist ideas."

Searching about for a home for his nationalist ideas, he said, he found it in his reformed old enemy, the National Party.

He signed up in April, one of a number of former ANC soldiers to join the National Party, men who came back from exile to find no jobs and little support from the ANC.

"I realized that they had changed," he said of the National Party. "Changes can happen from within. Look at the American Civil War. That was about people changing from within. This is what happened with the National Party."

On Mr. Banda's desk was a sheaf of applications for party membership.

He said that once they can hide behind the secrecy of the ballot, blacks will vote for the party in a higher percentage than the tiny one that shows up in opinion polls.

"We're going to take the ANC by surprise," he said. "People in Soweto have come to realize that it's better to sleep with the devil you know than the devil you don't know."

But Mr. Madi was certain of his stand.

"It's too late for them to change," he said of the National Party. "They should have changed 10 years back, not now. I'm just wondering why they are here. The ANC is going to take all the votes in Soweto."

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