South African Elections: Racial sparks fly as the Cape votes

'The situation is explosive,' said the white election observer. 'This is gangland, and most of these people are armed. One fight will set it off.'

He was standing between rival groups of National Party and African National Congress supporters in Manenberg, the roughest of the townships built on the desolate Cape Flats for Coloureds (people of mixed race) when apartheid expelled them from the inner city. Graffiti on the walls of the squalid communal flats proclaimed allegiance to such gangs as the Americans, the Jumbo Boys and the Jesters, drug dealers and armed robbers who terrorise the district.

Peace monitors and Independent Election Commission (IEC) officials radioed anxiously for help as the rival groups danced to campaign tunes blasting from their loudspeakers, but the mood seemed raucous rather than dangerous. The Nationalist supporters, who far outnumbered the ANC, cackled as a toothless old woman minced about in what she claimed was an imitation of Marike de Klerk, the outgoing President's wife. Three runaway horses galloped past to whistles and cheers from the crowd, lending a touch of pure surrealism.

As in most of the country, yesterday's second day of voting in Cape Town was an anti-climax. Polling stations where thousands had queued in the rain on Wednesday saw only a trickle of voters, despite better weather, and many shops and offices were open, ignoring the announcement of another public holiday. But flare-ups between Nationalist and ANC supporters continued in some Coloured areas, where visceral racism has surfaced during the campaign.

The National Party has successfully exploited fears of black domination among mixed-race voters, making the election race the closest in South Africa.

'Moenie vir die bobbejaane stem nie (Don't vote for the baboons),' screamed a Nationalist worker in Bonteheuwel, a more prosperous Coloured area, where the ANC appeared to enjoy greater support than in Manenberg.

'Bly 'n Hotnot - stem NP,' read a spray-painted slogan nearby. The message translates as: 'Stay inferior - vote National Party.'

Most Coloureds and Indians rejected the Nationalist government's attempt 10 years ago to fob them off with separate legislatures, while denying any representation to blacks. For four Coloured voters out of five, this is the first time they have gone to the polls, yet the National Party appears set to gain most of their votes.

James Engelbrecht, 54, who disclosed that he had served 15 years for murder - 'I was a prisoner, like Mandela. If he has the right to take over the country, I am also entitled' - made little secret of his sympathies. 'I have a car, a bakkie (pick-up truck) and a firearm,' he said. 'The National Party has fed me all these years, so why should I turn from them now?'

For the radical Pan Africanist Congress, the threat is the ANC. It said yesterday that the IEC in the Western Cape consisted overwhelmingly of ANC supporters, who had conspired to disrupt polling in the PAC's claimed strongholds of Mitchell's Plain, where more than a million Coloureds live, and the neighbouring black township of Khayelitsha. Patricia de Lille, the party's candidate for regional premier, said the PAC would refuse to accept the Western Cape results unless its complaints were resolved.

Early yesterday some polling stations in Khayelitsha had still received no ballot papers, but many of the area's first-time voters went elsewhere. On Wednesday some took taxis to vote as far away as Sea Point, where luxury apartment blocks overlook the ocean. They took down election posters to shelter from the pouring rain, or shared umbrellas with whites, but Marion Laverlott, a Coloured MA student, had no protection except the shoulder of her white friend, Raymond Koekemoer. 'I'm voting ANC and he's voting Nat, but he's my best friend,' she said.

Vian van Niekerk had crossed the city to vote next to the castle erected by the first white settlers soon after they arrived in 1652. The country's new flag fluttered from the ramparts. 'I feel it is significant to end apartheid where it began,' he said.