FRANSCHHOEK, South Africa -- Frank Arendse, the new mayor of this quaint little village, has earned a place in South African history. He is the first non-white person to head the government of a white town.
Mr. Arendse, 38, is "colored," which means he belongs to a racial classification created by the government for everyone who is not totally white, totally black or totally Indian. Somewhere in his family history, he says, there was an affair between a British soldier and a black woman from Madagascar.
In South Africa's racial hierarchy, the nation's 3 million coloreds are higher up the ladder than its 30 million blacks but not as high as whites, who have the most rights, privileges and wealth.
Franschhoek, a picturesque town at the base of a pine-topped mountain range, has been run by whites since it was settled in 1694 by Huguenots, French protestants fleeing persecution in Europe.
The old legacy of persecution may be what helps the people here to be more liberal-minded. But the selection of Mr. Arendse, a liquor store and disco owner from the adjacent colored community of Groendal, came as a shock to some of the local residents.
"The white people can't believe there's a colored mayor who rules the whole town," said Mr. Arendse, a small-framed man with light brown skin. "Some of the people say they don't accept me as mayor. But I'm not worried. I think what I must do is show that a colored skin can do what a white can."
He speaks in slow, careful English and explains that he is not entirely comfortable with it.
His first language is Afrikaans, the language of the Afrikaner people, white descendants of South Africa's original Dutch settlers. It is also the language of South Africa's colored people, the majority population group in the region known as "the Cape," which ends at the wind-swept Cape of Good Hope on Africa's southern tip.
Mr. Arendse was chosen last month to head a local government that serves both the white town of Franschhoek, population 1,200, and the nearby colored community of Groendal, population 3,500. Before last month, each community had its own town council -- the colored one advised the white, which made the decisions.
But, prodded by a liberal-minded outgoing mayor, Arthur McWilliams White, council members decided to experiment with an idea being discussed in many municipal areas of South Africa: a unified, racially mixed government.
Move to power-sharing
Some have already unified their councils in a start toward the sort of power-sharing arrangement that South Africa's reformers have in mind, although the reformers would change the balance more dramatically with the one-person, one vote principle.
Here, the two councils voted on Sept. 18 to unite and elect a single mayor to head a new 12-member panel, which consists of six whites and six coloreds.
Three weeks ago, Mr. Arendse was nominated by the black council he headed and won with eight votes, including those of two liberal whites. The white candidate lost with four.
Conservative whites complained immediately that Mr. Arendse was a poor choice and wasn't ready for the job, although he had served 12 years on the colored council and was its chairman.
"He's not qualified," said Jan Roux, a white council member who voted against Mr. Arendse.
"The thing people are worried about is that he doesn't have much experience," said Karel Pepler, whose butcher shop sits in the middle of a row of trendy French restaurants along Franschhoek's commercial strip.
"The mayor is not very important anyway," he shrugged. "The town clerk is more important." The town clerk is white and performs as sort of a town manager, although the council makes policy, and as mayor, Mr. Arendse gets a tie-breaking vote in addition to his regular vote.
Most coloreds were delighted by Mr. Arendse's election. "We're proud of him," said Gwen Riffel, a waitress at Le Quartier Francais, a fancy French restaurant. "There are no facilities in the township. We hope things like that will come right now."
But a few radical coloreds were critical. (There are only a few in conservative, church-going Groendal.) Jan Pfeiffer, a local activist with the African National Congress, called Mr. Arendse a puppet of the whites and said he was not democratically elected by the people of Franschhoek and Groendal.
"I don't see what the ANC wants further," responded the mayor, who says he has no political affiliation. "This is a step toward democracy. Before we became one council, coloreds were puppets. But we sit in the driver's seat now."
One of Mr. Arendse's first acts was to reassure nervous whites that having a colored man in the driver's seat didn't mean they were all headed for a crash.
Mr. Arendse offers the letter to a visitor during an interview in his sparsely furnished living room. A picture of the new mayor wearing his official red robe and medallion sits on the mantle piece of a stone fireplace.
The stuffed heads of two antelopes Mr. Arendse shot while hunting in Namibia peer down from the wall above the sofa. He is a good shot, having worked as a prison guard for 13 years before going into the liquor business. The last 10 were at Victor Verster Prison, where Nelson Mandela served his last years as a political prisoner.
Labor in the vineyards
Born on a farm near Franschhoek, where his father was a laborer, Mr. Arendse's early life was typical of coloreds in the Cape wine country, a scenic region of emerald-colored mountains with hundreds of grape farms nestled between the peaks. The area is dotted with vineyards with names like de Villiers or L'Ormarins painted on signs along winding country roads. Most coloreds in the area work on the farms.
Franschhoek ("French Corner") is about an hour's drive inland from Cape Town, where the first Dutch settler's landed in 1652. It was established by Huguenots who arrived on the Dutch ships and brought the grape plants that formed the beginnings of one of the country's major industries.
The labor force at first consisted of slaves from other Dutch colonies, such as Madagascar, and later included indigenous "Hottentot" or Khoi people who were forced off their land as more whites came.
Uneducated and badly paid, sometimes with only food, shelter and wine according to historians, the coloreds in the region have remained a poor community. Mr. Arendse owns one of the two nicest houses in his township. The other belongs to a family that moved to Australia, as many light-skinned coloreds did to escape apartheid.
Coloreds used to live in Franschhoek proper until 1952, when they were all removed under apartheid laws that mandated separate residential areas for different races. Groendal, a shabby little township, was established for them just outside of town.
The law mandating segregated residential areas was repealed last year but no coloreds have moved into Franschhoek yet. Mr. Arendse says the public facilities have been desegregated since 1990 and that many whites here are adjusting easily to the new South Africa.
Some greeted his election as a sign of positive change. "You have people who are not satisfied. But not many," said Dicey Kriek, who works at the Huguenot Museum. "You'll get that attitude among the older people. It's very difficult for them to get used to these things."
The museum, housed in two stately Renaissance-style buildings, stands next to the big granite Huguenot monument that looks down on a reflecting pool surrounded by manicured gardens. The museum is at one end of town, while the colored township with its dirt roads and boxy little houses is at the other.
Mr. Arendse said his top priority during his one-year term will be to improve the living conditions in the township, but he realizes he can't spend all of the town's money on coloreds. "The whites would be angry," he explained.
But some whites have eagerly embraced the changes and say they might serve as an example for the rest of the country. "When people see this happening in a small place like this and they see the world isn't collapsing, then maybe they will think it would be OK on a bigger scale," said Pat Bird, a middle-aged woman who runs a tourist shop called La Petite Galerie.
"It's like Chicken Little in the nursery rhyme. The sky isn't falling," she added. "It's taken us a long time to get to this point."