Mandela's party remains at top but short of total control Independents win seats in local council elections


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- As the voting count in Wednesday's local elections trickled in yesterday, it became clear that Nelson Mandela's African National Congress remains South Africa's most popular party, but that this country is far from becoming a one-party state like so many on the continent.

In the elections for almost 700 local councils throughout most of the country, it appeared that the ANC is getting about 58 percent of the vote, down from the 62 percent it tallied in the April 1994 election that made Nelson Mandela president.

The National Party, rulers of the country during its 40 years of apartheid, was running second at around 20 percent, equal to its vote last year.

The Inkatha Freedom Party ran third last time, but is making only a small showing in this election as there were no local offices to fill in its stronghold of KwaZulu/Natal. Right-wing white parties did not perform particularly well.

Even with the ANC's large lead in the overall vote -- its lead would be considered a landslide in the United States -- the party is far from dominating all local councils.

The ANC has had trouble delivering on its promised housing, jobs and utilities for millions of poor blacks.

Mr. Mandela and his party insist that local governments must be in place for national development plans to work.

In many cases, the ANC may have more seats than any other party, but it is still far short of a majority. In part, this is due to the success of independent candidates, some of whom ran as a non-political alternative, others as community leaders who were overlooked by the party leadership.

It is also because, under an arrangement worked out at last year's talks on a new constitution, the formerly all-white wards are getting a disproportionately high number of council seats.

For instance, in Ventersdorp, a town west of Johannesburg that has been considered a right-wing stronghold, the ANC will control the town council by only one seat even though it received two-thirds of the vote -- more than 2,000 votes compared to 674 for the right-wing Conservative Party.

There were long lines at many polling stations on Wednesday, but national voter turnout figures ranged from a low of around 35 percent of registered voters in the North West province which borders Botswana, to close to 75 percent in some black townships around Johannesburg.

The overall turnout will probably be 55 to 60 percent. That is fairly impressive for a local election by international standards, but so far below the estimated 90 percent turnout last year that it is clear that, even though this was only the country's second non-racial vote, democracy has already lost its novelty status.

Despite myriad problems -- missing ballots, last-minute lawsuits, sporadic violence -- the vote came off with few major difficulties.

"We are amazed that we did not hit more administrative snags," said Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, co-chairman of the task force that put on the election.

"We are deeply grateful for the low level of violence," he said. "We came through very well."

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