Crisis threatens to disrupt poll in South Africa

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The Independent Online

Tensions in South Africa's government of national unity, and in the violence-prone province of KwaZulu-Natal, overshadowed a vote yesterday by parliament to hold historic local elections next month.

Polls to replace the last remnants of apartheid in South Africa's elected institutions have been bedevilled for months by uncertainty over voter registration and haggling over local authority boundaries. Although the National Assembly voted yesterday to go ahead on 1 November, KwaZulu-Natal will sit out the process for at least another five months.

The parliamentary debate, however, caused the worst infighting between the African National Congress and its governing partner, the National Party, since the national election 17 months ago. Mac Maharaj, the ANC Minister of Transport, called for the Deputy President and leader of the National Party, F W de Klerk, to be sacked as chairman of the cabinet committee on security and intelligence, accusing him of threatening a coup during a speech at the weekend.

Yesterday President Nelson Mandela's office moved to dispel rumours, believed to have started in financial markets in London, that Mr de Klerk had resigned, although the ANC said it supported Mr Maharaj's call for his dismissal. Mr de Klerk said he had been misquoted.

Tension between the two parties has been aggravated by ANC claims that the NP was attempting to manipulate the electoral boundaries in the Western Cape, the only province controlled by the party, to improve its chances next month. Polls will go ahead except in the greater Cape Town metropolitan area, the centre of the dispute.

Voting will also be delayed in KwaZulu-Natal, the power base of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party, which has seen the worst wrangling over boundaries.

Peter Miller, Inkatha's provincial housing minister, said yesterday that it would be impossible to go ahead with elections before 27 March next year, the deadline set in the new legislation. If KwaZulu-Natal fails to meet the deadline, the central government is empowered to appoint administrators to run the province.

Fighting between the Zulu nationalists of Inkatha and ANC supporters has killed scores of people in the province in recent months. This, coupled with bitter disputes over boundaries, has undermined any hope of a trouble- free election.

Inkatha, which governs KwaZulu-Natal with a small majority, has argued for a high degree of autonomy from the central government, and Chief Buthelezi is accused of seeking the secession of the province. The party is refusing to include any tribal areas within the electoral boundaries of the cities, and the issue will now be referred to a special electoral court, probably by early next month, for a final decision.

In the rest of the country there is increasing concern that voters' rolls may not be up to date. Despite a massive voter-education drive in the past six months, a survey this week revealed that many people still believe they can simply turn up at the polls and vote, as they did last year.