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Election battle rages in an SA gangland



Westbury, or Western as it is better known from its old name of Western Coloured Township, is a sprawling neighbourhood of box-like houses in a part of Johannesburg where the experienced do not stop at red lights.

There are few trees or patches of grass to break up the monotony of asphalt pavement and cement alleyways. Only graffiti and idle young men decorate the neighbourhood. The writing on walls preaches the Bible, while young men watch the streets with busy eyes. Occasionally there is quick hand movement, followed by the flash of gunmetal as a pistol is pulled out of a waistband.

This is gang country, home to the Fastguns and Varados and other groups who wage nightly gun-battles to control the local drugs trade, one of the few sources of employment in this part of town. More recently, however, Western has become a different kind of battleground, a centre of an intense political struggle for the hearts and minds of people who live there, waged not with guns or threats, but with anti-drug slogans and rallies for better housing and lower rents. Western is in the heart of Ward 18, one of the most hotly contested areas in South Africa's first all-race local elections, which take place today. It comprises townships which used to be reserved for coloured (mixed-race) people.

Yet for all the symbolic importance of electing new and accountable authorities, and despite the heavy promotion to get people to vote, today's polls have generated little real interest or enthusiasm. Ward 18 looks like being an exception, with the vote set to be a dead heat between President Nelson Mandela's African National Congress and the former ruling National Party, with a well-known local do-gooder - Florrie Danniels - running as a spoiler. "Apathy may be a worry for some candidates in other wards, but certainly not in mine," said Shahit Wadvalla, the ANC candidate.

Mr Wadvalla believes he has a 50-50 chance of victory. "This is not an easy ward. It has a township, poor inner-city areas and a middle-class suburb. The whole ward is predominantly mixed-race, and coloured politics is always complicated. The National Party has solid backing here," he said.

Coloureds have been traditionally fearful of unfettered black majority rule, and in areas where they are a force, such as the Western Cape, they tended to side with the conservative white National Party.

But in Western, even that is not a certainty. The cost of municipal housing and rates are the key issues in Ward 18. Many Western residents complained that while black townships have had their local rates capped, Western and other nearby coloured areas have not, a fact they blame on the ANC, because they say it does not respond to their needs.

Crime, of course, is the other key issue, which all parties promise to tackle. But locals see the cost and quality of housing as intricately linked to the problem. "Look at how we live on top of on another in these decaying boxes," said Vernon Naidoo, a school janitor. "There is hardly room to breathe. Living like this encourages gangs and people killing each other."