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Non-Whites Take Power in First Free Local Elections

November 2, 1995

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ White thugs clubbed Phillip Basson’s father to death 36 years ago for sitting in the whites-only section of a streetcar. Political justice was his best revenge, and Basson got it Thursday when he became one of South Africa’s first elected non-white town councilors.

``My father died as a result of apartheid,″ Basson, 60, said Thursday. ``I try to forget, but it always comes back. After he died, my determination to change the system became much more hard.″

African National Congress candidates like Basson won an apparent landslide in Wednesday’s first all-race local elections. Results were still trickling in and a final tally wasn’t expected until Friday, but Basson knew at dawn he’d won Ward 16 in greater Johannesburg.

The elections swept away the last vestiges of white-minority rule, eliminated on the national level in April 1994 when Nelson Mandela and the ANC won the nation’s first democratic vote.

In the races for almost 700 local councils throughout most of the country, early results showed the ANC winning majority control of 54 compared to 11 for the National Party. Independent groups such as local taxpayer associations also won several councils.

With the ANC doing well even in regions where the National Party had dominated in last year’s elections, the trend favoring Mandela’s party was expected to continue.

That means many territories that were controlled by whites would now be governed by black-led councils with power to decide what roads to pave and schools to build.

For Basson, a soft-spoken trade union leader with a gold-capped smile, the victory marked a triumph over the racial hatred that killed his father.

Martin Basson was a 47-year-old head waiter in 1959 when he boarded a streetcar heading from downtown to home in the mixed-race neighborhood of Coronationville.

In those days, only whites could sit in the preferred aisle seats, leaving non-whites to cram onto two benches or stand. Often, only one white would sit in a seat designed for two but refuse to share.

``Once in a while, they’d wave you over and you could sit down,″ Basson recalled. ``That’s what happened to my father. Then they attacked him. They cracked his skull with a blunt instrument.″

Martin Basson went into a coma and died. No one was ever arrested.

Phillip was already a union activist in the leather industry and dabbled in anti-apartheid politics. After his father’s death, he began seriously attending ANC meetings chaired by Mandela.

Thirty years of underground activity and police harassment followed. Basson rose to become regional secretary of the National Union of Leather Workers. When Mandela was freed from 27 years of imprisonment and the ANC legalized in 1990, Basson formed a local party branch in his neighborhood, Riverlea.

Now at the heart of Ward 16, ``colored″ Riverlea belonged to no electoral district under apartheid. Neither did the black areas _ the factory belt of Industria and a Soweto neighborhood called Power Park _ that now form the ward’s southern edge.

Of Ward 16′s current 13,000 registered voters, only the working-class whites in jacaranda-lined Crosby and Langlaagte had ever voted in local elections. They always went for the white-led National Party.

On Wednesday, with black and colored shopkeepers, workers and squatters casting ballots for the first time, the ANC polled 3,113 votes to 2,114 for the National Party. Three other parties split a further 1,406.

``Our president wants to emphasize reconciliation. It’s not always easy for me or anyone else,″ Basson said.

``But I had no real hassles when I campaigned in white areas. You have to do something for the people you represent, no matter what nationality they are.″