MITCHELL'S PLAIN, South Africa -- Nelson Mandela began the battle for the votes of South Africa's so-called colored population last week with a whistle stop tour through this sandy, wind-swept township.
In polls last year, the mixed-race coloreds backed the ruling National Party over the African National Congress. Though that's been reversed in more recent polls, Mr. Mandela is taking no chances.
This five-day trip to the Cape Town area marked his first major public appearances here since his 1990 release from prison, and he spent much of his time going after the area's significant population of coloreds, who often see the ANC as a black-based group responsible for the chaos that has become part of life in so many black townships.
Clearly, the National Party is hoping that the voters among the country's four million coloreds will join with those from South Africa's five million whites next April to keep the ANC from getting an outright electoral majority from its base among the blacks, who make up 80 percent of the 39.2 million population.
Mr. Mandela took a number of stances aimed a assuaging colored fears, including attending Mass at a Roman Catholic church, an obvious attempt to counter the charge, effective among the highly religious coloreds, that the ANC is a Communist-based, atheist organization.
He was introduced at each stop by Allan Boesak, a prominent colored leader who holds a top position in the ANC. The Mandela stump speech began with a recitation of the number of other high-ranking ANC coloreds and went on to hit hard on law-and-order and education themes, which are important among the coloreds.
Mr. Mandela emphasized that the problems of violence and irregular school attendance developed while the National Party was in power and that the country's current rulers should be blamed.
"Women in our towns are raped, people are assaulted, even murdered, without the police doing anything about it," he said. "This government does not care about our children. These are the types of things that the ANC has prepared itself to address."
While exuberant crowds of tens of thousands gather in stadiums in black townships for Mandela appearances, there were only a few hundred people at each of the Mitchell's Plain stops. And a few of them carried National Party flags.
"We are worried about the future, about what will happen when he grows up," said a National Party supporter who would only give her first name, Lynn, referring to the three-year-old on her shoulders.
Janine Paulsen, 15, blamed the ANC for the constant disruptions in her education, many of them the results of strikes called by teachers and students unions associated with the ANC.
And she also raised what some see as a more fundamental issue: "If the ANC wins, the blacks will get more of the jobs."
"The blacks cannot run this country, never," Lynn said. "The white man has done it for all these years."
Coloreds suffered under apartheid. They were disenfranchised, segregated and moved from their homes. Many of Mitchell's Plain's citizens trace their roots back to Cape Town's District Six, a multi-racial melting pot that was torn down by the government in 1966, displacing 50,000 people.
But whatever their problems, coloreds were still one step ahead of blacks. For some, supporting the black-dominated ANC would be the equivalent of taking a step down, while being allowed to join the National Party would be the long-awaited acceptance into the white elite.
This is why Mr. Mandela emphasized the ANC's multiracial legacy in his speech.
"The ANC is the only political organization in the country that is genuinely non-racial. We care about you, we respect you and, above all, we love you," he told the crowds.
One factor working in the National Party's favor is language. Unlike blacks, whose native tongue is almost always an African language, most coloreds grew up speaking Afrikaans, the Dutch hybrid language that is spoken by white Afrikaners.
Mr. Mandela, whose native language is Xhosa, always speaks in English. But at Mitchell's Plain he made a point of making a few remarks in Afrikaans, which he studied during his time in prison.
Beyond language, in a country that places so much emphasis on ancestry -- be it African, Indian or European, the coloreds have been a people without a culture.
"It is a shame in a way, but we have become so Westernized that we have lost that part of Africa," said Abe Williams, the minister of sport and the first non-white to have a portfolio in the Cabinet.
For years, under British rule, the Cape coloreds had the right to vote and limited representation in Parliament. That was ended when the Afrikaner-dominated National Party came to power in 1948.
Though some denounced people like Mr. Williams as sellouts for standing for the subordinate colored house in Parliament that the government created in 1983, he has no apologies.
"I think it was good that they brought the coloreds into the political process then," he said. "Of course, it is too bad that they didn't include blacks, too." He said he is confident that the National Party will win the colored vote in April.
"The Cape colored are people who are strong for education," he said. "And they are not people of violence. Never have been. All the incidents of violence in South Africa are affecting the ANC very badly among the colored. I can't say that violence is a part of the ANC, but they are very much a party of political protest, and violence has become to be seen a part of black political protest."
It is hard to see such misgivings about the ANC sending the majority of coloreds into the former party of apartheid, but Mr. Williams does not think that the past will diminish the National Party's appeal.
"We're not voting about the past," he said. "We're voting for the future."