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Democratic Revolution Trickles to Towns and Cities

February 8, 1995

SESHEGO, South Africa (AP) _ Bouncing along rutted dirt roads, Johan Peyper learned how hard it will be to spread South Africa’s new democracy to the towns and townships dotting the countryside.

An assistant city secretary in Pietersburg, 180 miles north of Johannesburg, Peyper searched the adjoining black township of Seshego for potential voting stations for local elections to be held in October.

Churches? Most were too small. A community hall? It has been unusable since a fire in the 1980s. And Seshego doesn’t have a library.

What Seshego does have is about 50,000 black voters, more than double the number of white voters in Pietersburg. That means the end of apartheid’s lingering vestiges in an area traditionally dominated by the white minority.

When South Africa’s estimated 23 million voters choose local leaders this fall, it will complete the shift from minority rule to elected governments. Most cities and towns will have black leaders for the first time.

The black majority got its first chance to vote last April, giving Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress an overwhelming victory in national and provincial elections. Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, calls the local elections the final step in instilling democracy.

Under apartheid, black local officials were appointed by whites and took orders from them. Local elections will allow blacks to elect their own town and city officials, and to tap into richer, multiracial tax bases to help fund libraries, roads, hospitals and other local services.

Seshego and Pietersburg will come under a single local government elected by their combined populations.

Black and white leaders in the area started working together last year in a multiracial transitional council to ease the end of apartheid. A picture-postcard town with roots in gold mining and farming, Pietersburg has long been a stronghold of conservative whites, and early meetings of the transitional panel showed the area’s divisive roots.

``People arrived carrying guns,″ said Town Clerk Attie Vermaak, who mediated the creation of the transitional council. When armed whites of the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement failed to intimidate black leaders, they stopped attending the meetings, Vermaak said.

Lawrence Mapoulo, the black ANC leader chosen to head Pietersburg’s transitional council, said he was confident of winning a seat in October on what is sure to be a black-dominated city council. He has vowed to improve the lives of his neighbors in Seshego.

Other areas present different political and racial equations _ and challenges. In the traditional Zulu homeland and other tribal areas, hereditary chiefs who oversaw local administrations during apartheid fear local elections will mean a loss of power and the breakdown of tribal culture.

Chiefs in KwaZulu-Natal province, which includes the Zulu territory, have rejected local elections unless the ANC agrees to international mediation on the powers of the Zulu king and the provincial government, headed by the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party. Talks on possible mediation are under way, and the government has offered chiefs specific powers in the new local governments.

But the possible boycott by Inkatha-aligned chiefs has set off a resurgence of political violence between the ANC and Inkatha in the province. More than 100 people were killed in assassinations and attacks in January.

In other townships and tribal areas, black groups that once fought together against apartheid could find themselves political opponents.

Registration for the local election, scheduled for an unspecified date in October, began in late January and runs until April 26. Officials worry that three months isn’t long enough to convince people of the election’s importance.

``The system of local government in black areas has been totally discredited,″ said Portia Maurice of Project Vote, a voter education group. ``That’s one of the challenges now, to try to persuade people to have faith in local government.″

Others say many blacks don’t understand the difference between the three levels of government, or fail to comprehend the need to vote a second time after the historic April election.

``Most are not aware of these October elections. Even if they are aware, they are not prepared,″ said Johnny Maphoto, an administrator with a private development agency working in Seshego.

Gesturing to the mostly black lunch time crowd on a Pietersburg street corner, he added: ``These guys must be taught what their rights are.″

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