Soweto pupils vote for books

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DEMOCRACY IS cool. "So you just take that voter card and that ID and go and vote." That was yesterday's lesson at Anchor High School, Soweto, from the lips of Bonny Matshitse, a hip, no nonsense, 29-year- old voter educator.

In South Africa's second multi-race elections, to be held next Wednesday, 51 per cent of the electorate of 18 million will be under 35. Because of economic hardships, many of these young voters are still studying for matric (A-levels). "Why should we vote?" shouts Mr Matshitse, standing on a table in the bare auditorium, with 90 pupils gathered beneath him. Anchor is a typical township school: smashed windows, metal fixtures half- ripped from the walls, and no textbooks.

"We must vote because it's our right," shouts back 20-year-old Nora Pooe.

"What's a right? You think you have rights just because you are black. You are entitled to get an education but you have no right to abuse your teacher. Got it?"

Mr Matshitse, a business student who is also a volunteer for the Electoral Institute of South Africa, is on a mission. Educating young voters in the Gauteng region - which includes Soweto and Johannesburg - takes him and a colleague to the kinds of schools where teachers carry guns to protect themselves.

"These kids have lost their way. In the struggle [against apartheid], our youth was told to make the country ungovernable. Now they do not know any other way to behave," said Mr Matshitse.

There is much talk in South Africa of youth apathy but not much sign of it at Anchor High. They are still young people though. When Mr Matshitse told his audience that they must vote at the same place where they registered in April, the pupils showed greater concern for "Hansie's boys" and Bafana Bafana. The former, the South African cricket team, are in Britain for the World Cup and the latter, the national football team, face Mauritius in Durban next week. In common with virtually all his peers, Progress Lobatsi, 22, intended to vote for the African National Congress."I am angry we do not have textbooks but this government has done well and we must give them another chance," said Mr Lobatsi, who will be voting for the second time.

The 1994 elections were haphazard, violent and riddled with irregularities because a national electoral roll did not exist. Some results had to be agreed between parties forming the government of national unity and it is known that in the general euphoria that surrounded the ballot, many people under the age of 18 managed to vote.

In the run-up to this year's election, in which the ANC is expected to win a comfortable majority, the government has carried out a census and issued millions of bar-coded identity books. There has been sporadic violence, especially in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal involving the ANC, the United Democratic Movement and the Inkatha Freedom Party - but so far electioneering has been calmer than anyone expected. The ANC, which despite its expected landslide in the national elections could be defeated in one or two provinces, is so confident that its leader, Thabo Mbeki, cancelled all the rallies he was to speak at on Thursday.

Today, Mr Mbeki will address a rally in Durban that President Nelson Mandela, whom he is almost certain to succeed next month, would have attended had the party not been so certain of victory. Instead, Mr Mandela is in Nigeria for the inauguration of the civilian regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo.

Tomorrow, in what is seen as an early victory rally, both men and a host of South African musicians will take the stage at Soweto's FNB stadium.