Problems could threaten crucial S. Africa election; Low voter registration, ID requirements, lack of funding haunt campaign


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africa is gearing up for its second democratic election since the apartheid era, but lack of funding, a court challenge over identification requirements and low voter registration threaten the success of the ballot in this fledgling democracy.

The watershed election, marking a transfer of power from President Nelson Mandela to his heir-apparent, Thabo Mbeki, is widely predicted for May. It must be held by July.

The campaign will be markedly different from that of 1994, which celebrated the nation's liberation from apartheid by electing the first black-majority government.

This year the ruling African National Congress will be running on its record. It is a record that leaves it open to criticism in key areas such as education, health, housing and crime.

There is no question that the ANC will be reelected. The question is whether it will get the two-thirds majority that would enable it to change the constitution should it desire. In 1994, the ANC received 62.65 percent.

Recent polls suggest the ANC will fall well short of the two-thirds mark, largely because of disillusion within the black majority over its failure to live up to election promises, particularly on housing and land reform.

The ANC rules through an alliance with the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. But the partnership is under increasing strain over adoption of free-market policies at the expense of a socialist agenda.

The ANC maintains close relations with its apartheid-era adversary, the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, whose leader, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, is minister of home affairs and a potential vice president to Mbeki. There has been talk of a merger of the two major black parties, arousing fears of a virtual one-party state, but this seems unlikely in the short term.

For Mbeki, a politician of much experience but little charisma, the biggest challenge will be to replace the moral authority and global stature of Mandela.

He will inherit a country he has described as still "two nations" -- rich whites and poor blacks. It is torn by racism, gripped by recession, blighted by crime and struggling to find its role on this troubled continent as well as in a competitive world.

His opposition straddles the political spectrum from the radical Pan Africanist Congress, which supports "Africanism" in almost all aspects of life, to the right-wing Freedom Party, which wants a separate homeland for white Afrikaners.

Among the white minority, a battle has been joined for the title of official parliamentary opposition between the Democratic Party and the recently renamed New National Party (NNP). The old National Party imposed apartheid, political baggage that the new one is anxious to leave behind.

Support for the NNP, which is making a largely futile effort to widen its appeal, has slipped into single figures from the 20 percent of the vote it received in 1994.

The Democratic Party (DP), loudly voicing white concerns about crime, unemployment and discrimination by the black majority, is creeping toward double-digit backing from the meager 1.7 percent it won five years ago.

There are other fringe groups, but none of the opposition parties poses a serious threat to an ANC victory. Their prime goal is to prevent the government from becoming all-powerful.

As Democratic Party leader Tony Leon said in a speech on prospects beyond 1999: "The opposition's work is cut out for it: to guard the roadblock against the prospect of a one-party dominant state in favor of a multiparty democracy.

"South Africa has defied the odds before. We made the profound leap of faith out of a political dead end in 1994, staggered the imagination of the world and saved ourselves from the Armageddon of a racial civil war.

"South Africa in its fifth year of freedom from the dead hand of apartheid has made remarkable progress in establishing a foundation for freedom and equality, but the real test of building on this base lies ahead and we dare not fail it."

The immediate concern is that the approaching election could be a shambles.

The Independent Electoral Commission warned last week that its $100 million budget was too small.

The commission chairman, Judge Johan Kriegler, said the panel must purchase equipment to verify new bar-coded identity papers and computers to check off voters and receive polling data via satellite.

Even with volunteer assistance at the polls, the commission will not be able to fund the elections, he warned.

The major black newspaper in Johannesburg, the Sowetan, citing the costs of the collapse of democracy in Lesotho and Nigeria, said in an editorial: "Costs which can arise from questionable elections will far outweigh the shortfall the IEC currently faces. That we certainly cannot afford."

The conservative Citizen said: "The success of this second election as a benchmark for South Africa's standing as a democracy cannot be overestimated. Let's get it right this time."

The ballot also is threatened by a court challenge from the New National and Democratic parties over the government's ruling that only South Africans with new bar-coded identity documents will be allowed to vote.

The opposition parties say thousands of voters will not be able to get the new documents in time and that they want both old and new papers to be recognized.

Perhaps the most worrisome prospect is that of low voter registration. A three-day registration period last year netted 9.5 million voters, about 40 percent of those eligible.

The lowest registration figures were those of young voters. Among 18- to 20-year-olds, 11.5 percent registered. Among those in their 20s, registration was 28.3 percent.

"If the youth are not integrated into the democratic processes, the sustainability of our democracy is in jeopardy," Professor Mandla Mchunu of the Independent Electoral Commission told a news conference in Pretoria.

The IEC has announced a second registration period for the last three days of this month. In the meantime, the government stalls on announcing the election date.

Pub Date: 1/20/99

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