Most of trip is spent behind barbed wire De Klerk pays heavily guarded visit to Soweto

March 18, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

SOWETO, South Africa -- State President Frederick W. de Klerk's two impromptu walkabouts during his campaign stop in this sprawling black township were moments out of the picture-book of the new South Africa.

Scores of excited residents crowded about, smiling as they strained for a glimpse of the white leader of the party that imposed apartheid and then dismantled it.

Whether or not they would vote for his National Party next month was beside the point: Their president had come to call, and they were glad.

One little boy jockeying for position in the middle of the crowd at Dube, a Soweto commercial center, just looked up and grinned.

"He is nice," he said of Mr. de Klerk.

A man selling medicinal roots from a blanket laid out on a sidewalk seemed equally pleased. "This is very nice," he said. "I thought I would only see him on TV, not with my own eyes."

Only a relatively few people could fight their way through the photographers, cameramen and guards to shake Mr. de Klerk's hand, but many more tried.

At both stops, Mr. de Klerk made a brief speech amplified by speakers on top of a truck.

"I have come to Soweto not just because I want your votes, which I do, but because I want to listen to you and hear what your problems are," he said. "I want to see all the people of South Africa. I am looking for a new South Africa.

"I am overwhelmed by your friendship."

This, Mr. de Klerk's only scheduled campaign appearance in Soweto, was a rare appearance by a South African president in the largest of the country's townships, indeed its largest city. Mr. de Klerk did make a brief stop here in 1990, greeted with cheers not long after he freed African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela from prison.

Perhaps because he feared disruptions by ANC supporters -- disruptions that never came -- most of Mr. de Klerk's two hours in Soweto was spent under a huge white tent set up behind a barbed-wire-topped fence in a nicely landscaped rented park facility, eating lunch off china plates.

It was an invitation-only affair for National Party supporters. Much of the crowd of 300 or so was bused in from neighboring Indian and mixed-raced townships where the National Party is expected to draw a considerable vote.

Outside the locked gate, a small group of blacks gathered, denied entry.

The closed-door policy did not sit well, especially in line with Mr. de Klerk's comments on being in Soweto "to listen to you and hear what your problems are."

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