South African Elections: Gandhi's heirs fearful of black majority

MAHATMA GANDHI confronted racial discrimination in South Africa with passive resistance, but Indian voters today have swung behind the architects of apartheid and could undermine the African National Congress's hopes of winning a majority in Natal.

The Indians' common cause with the African majority was broken in recent years by the removal of racist laws by President F W de Klerk; now they feel threatened. Many cite the occupation last year of 800 homes earmarked for Indian families in Cato Manor outside Durban by their African neighbours as a harbinger of things to come.

'Indians are really afraid of being swamped by a black majority,' said Raj Bodasing, 50, a lawyer and sugar plantation owner who plans to vote for the ANC. 'The leadership of the ANC has many Communists, and for religious and economic reasons, Communism is alien to the average Indian.'

President de Klerk's ruling Nationalist Party, and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party, are expected to gain from the swing away from the ANC by Natal's 900,000 Indians.

With the ANC expected to win about 40 per cent of the vote in Natal and the KwaZulu homeland it surrounds, the Indian vote could be critical in determining which party wins the provincial premiership and controls the provincial assembly. The National Party could win 20 per cent of the vote in Natal and Inkatha almost 30 per cent, providing them with a workable majority should they form a coalition.

Between 60 and 70 per cent of Indian voters - 10 per cent of the province's electorate - are estimated to back the National Party, leaving the ANC with between 15 and 30 per cent. Mr Bodasing predicted the National Party would win 70 per cent, while Sathish Jaggernath, director of the Child, Family and Community Care Centre in Durban, put the figure at 60 per cent. 'How do you remove tangible fear in the hearts of the people,' said Mr Jaggernath, an ANC member. 'They do not feel reassured enough to vote for the ANC.'

Despite Inkatha's late entry into the race, there is little chance that Chief Buthelezi's party will win significant votes among Indians. 'The Zulus have always been aggressive towards the Indians,' said Mr Bodasing. 'They say if the Indians had not come to Natal, the whites could not have oppressed them so easily.'

Babu Naidoo, the first Indian to arrive in Natal in 1855, was followed by tens of thousands who came as indentured workers on the sugar plantations, where Zulus refused to work. Sugar magnates continued to import Indian workers until 1911, when they outnumbered whites in Natal. That arithmetic, and the Indians' success in competing with white traders and businessmen, sparked a white backlash. Further Indian immigration was stopped by the 1913 Immigration Act, which in turn prompted Gandhi's campaign.

It was through the Natal Indian Congress, and subsequently the ANC and the unions, that Indians started to fight against racism and, after the election of the National Party government in 1948, apartheid. In 1949, riots erupted in Durban after an Indian shopkeeper manhandled an African boy. The death toll was 142; at least 1,000 were injured.

Eighty per cent of the Indians in Natal are working-class, living mainly in areas such as Phoenix, Avoca Hills, Verulam, Isipingo, which border some of the most violent black townships, like KwaMashu, Bhambayi, Umlazi and Ntuzuma. 'The average Indian has a car, television and a video, the basic symbols of middle-class contentment,' said Mr Jaggernath. 'They are scared of losing their goodies.'

In Phoenix, Indians are frightened that Africans will forcibly occupy their homes, as happened in Cato Manor, although no one was living in the homes there at the time. The Cato Manor occupations were organised by the ANC- aligned residents' association.

Several Phoenix residents said that young black men have come to them with 12- cent 'deposits' - 10 cents for the house, 1 cent for the car and another cent for their furniture - which they said they would take over after an ANC victory.

'Apartheid and the Group Areas Act . . . taught you to be divisive,' said Mr Jaggernath.