Lack of voters as SA sets poll date

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The Independent Online
South Africa will hold its first post-apartheid local elections on 1 November, President Nelson Mandela said yesterday, while provincial officials said they were confident a huge backlog of voter registrations would be cleared on time.

"The historic task of building democracy is half done," Mr Mandela told local government organisers in Johannesburg. The local elections "will cement the new democratic order we have fought for. The future of South African democracy depends on this collective national effort."

The stability of South Africa's 10-month non-racial government depends partly on the run-up to the municipal polls, which will bring a new generation into local government.

Registration is the key to avoiding the disorganisation that troubled the April 1994 general elections. Nobody knows how many voters there could be. The Central Statistics Office says there are 22 million; local authorities say 26 million. Officially, only 5 per cent of voters have registered. But delegates appeared confident the job could be done by 28 April, and that registration could be stretched beyond that date.

Furthest behind is the violent province of KwaZulu-Natal. But Rob Haswell, the mayor of the old provincial capital of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, said that the atmosphere had improved.

"It's only 1 per cent so far. But in Pietermaritzburg, we jumped from under 12,000 at the weekend to 20,000 yesterday. The show has started," said Mr Haswell.

An organiser from the poor Eastern Transvaal province said ignorance was more of a problem than hostility. "People also think that they voted for a national government last April, so that government should fix everything," he said.

Lack of enthusiasm for registration could stem from fears that voters' rolls will be used to force people to pay rates, rents and taxes. President Mandela promised the new roll "will not be used for devious purposes".

Mr Mandela said he might make the 1 November poll date a national holiday. Pledges to support the drawing-up of South Africa's first non-racial voter's list also came from the two other main leaders in the government of national unity, the Deputy-President, F W de Klerk and the Zulu leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

Mr Buthelezi, Minister of Home Affairs, has modified his opposition to the polls. He said he would support registration, even if his participation in the election remains conditional on obtaining autonomy for KwaZulu- Natal. "Some constitutional issues will have to be resolved before the planned elections can be conducted successfully," he said.

If the number of political murders rises, it could undermine confidence in South Africa by foreign businessmen, whose investments were freed from exchange controls on Monday by the abolition of the financial rand. The new unitary rand is holding steady in free-market trading, with bankers expecting no surprises in today's budget. "Failure in any sense can undo much of the good that we have achieved," Mr de Klerk warned. "The rand will disappear like mist in the morning sun."

The struggle over Winnie Mandela's political future, which could also shake the currency, is in abeyance while South Africa's other Vice-President, Thabo Mbeki, who has been given responsibility for the case, is out of the country.

A Johannesburg court hearing, on whether police had valid search warrants when they raided Mrs Mandela's home and offices two weeks ago, was postponed yesterday. Another potential time-bomb surfaced, however, when the Democratic Party leader, Tony Leon, said, after a meeting with the police commissioner, George Fivaz, that General Fivaz had agreed to re-open an investigation into Mrs Mandela's alleged involvement in the disappearance of two boys in Soweto in 1988.