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In Soweto, De Klerk Plays It Very Safe

March 18, 1994|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOWETO, South Africa — President Frederik W. de Klerk, who will likely go down in history as this country's last white president, has not had an easy time recently campaigning for next month's democratic elections.

He's been spat upon, hit in the neck with a small stone, grabbed in a headlock and drowned out by chanting crowds of angry blacks. A local paper has dubbed his effort "Mission: Impossible." His chief opponent, Nelson Mandela, has belittled him as a "weakling," a "leper" and "unstable."

So when De Klerk, head of the ruling National Party, took his campaign roadshow to Soweto on Thursday--his first visit in 3 1/2 years to South Africa's largest black township and city--he took no chances.

Police helicopters buzzed overhead. Dozens of paramilitary riot troops, festooned with tear-gas canisters, guns and flak jackets, manned roadblocks and guarded the area with armored vehicles. Others stood stony-faced by a tall fence and gate, bristling with razor-sharp barbed wire. Inside, De Klerk's own, mostly white security detail kept a tight, nervous circle around him.

All this was for a polite invitation-only lunch under a huge white tent filled largely with several hundred trucked-in black party workers, several dozen anxious-looking whites and more than a few beefy plainclothes police in dark glasses who tried in vain to occupy the numerous empty tables.

De Klerk, a polished politician given to upbeat pronouncements and optimistic forecasts, did not try to gloss over his problems in a virtually all black semi-urban slum that has become synonymous with the indignities and violence of apartheid.

His support here, he conceded, is underwhelming.

"We know there are tens of thousands of votes for the National Party here in Soweto," he told the luncheon.

Soweto, however, is home to an estimated 4 million blacks. That is almost the total number of whites in South Africa. Soweto, an acronym for South West Townships, is a 38.6-square-mile sprawl of 32 townships and squatter camps built since the 1930s around the dusty yellow mining dumps southwest of Johannesburg.

Polls have consistently shown that De Klerk's party is unlikely to win more than 1% or 2% of the total ballots cast by the estimated 18 million blacks who will vote for the first time ever April 26-28.

Whites, Indians and Colored voters are expected to give him about 20% of the total tally, with Mandela's African National Congress sweeping much of the rest.

Still, De Klerk promised to "take Soweto by storm" on Election Day.

"It's not going to be easy," he admitted. "It's a big city, and the ANC is very strong. But we are growing and they are shrinking."

De Klerk complained that his black supporters are being intimidated here. And many of the blacks at the lunch agreed.

Bonngani Mngomezulu, 28, a senior organizer for the National Party in Soweto, gave a chilling account of the threats against him and his family.

"They came one time with guns looking for me," he said in an interview. "They told my wife they would do to me what they did to my brother in 1984. They burned him. Twice. First they necklaced him (put a burning tire around his neck) and burned his house. Then, during the funeral, they stopped the hearse and burned his casket."

The problem obviously perplexes De Klerk and his mostly white aides.

"We almost feel guilty calling people here asking for support," said one well-dressed white woman, a National Party candidate for the provincial legislature.

Even De Klerk's lunch venue, the Ernest Oppenheimer Memorial Park in Jabavu township, was not chosen with local sensitivities in mind. The whites who helped administer Soweto in the 1970s took a bequest from the father of the famed mining magnate to build the park. It was a target in subsequent anti-apartheid riots.

"I've always wanted to destroy that park," Queen Mokgopo, a black tour guide, complained later. "It's under security all the time. There's all that barbed wire. We can't go in there."

And earlier, when De Klerk's motorcade made two quick roadside stops at a Soweto pharmacy and outdoor fruit market, he got a polite, bemused reception--at best.

A local ANC organizer, who gave his name as Comrade Dougie, explained the skepticism.

"If a lion says to you, 'Now I'm normal, I'm a new lion, I'm not going to eat you any more,' would you go into its den?" he asked.

The dual reality of post-apartheid election politics was amply illustrated half a mile from De Klerk's lunch.

There, a hastily organized ANC rally in the open-air Jabulani Amphitheater drew about 12,000 exuberant blacks to sing, dance and chant under the scorching afternoon sun.

Whereas De Klerk's supporters have been forced to read from cue cards to sing "Nkosi Sikelel'i Africa," the call-and-response hymn that was used for years as a black liberation anthem and has now been declared one of two national anthems for the new South Africa, here it roared as a deafening, shout-out and thunder-back that echoed in the still air.

Instead of a white tent, the crowd shielded themselves with cardboard campaign posters and tattered umbrellas. And rather than red wine and small talk, they blared bugles, waved huge ANC flags, thrust their fists in the air and screamed in delight when Tokyo Sexwale, a senior ANC leader, led them on-stage in the stomping, romping dance known as toyi-toyi.

While the crowd, mostly schoolchildren and teen-agers, was peaceful, outside was a grim reminder of the violence that permeates Soweto politics. Graffiti on the wall read, "De Klerk will be killed."

The president's final affront, perhaps, was the flatbed trucks that carried his black supporters home after the lunch. As they rolled past the ANC rally, the blacks on the back quickly shed the new National Party sun-visors and flags they had been issued, littering the dusty road with the stuff of which campaign dreams are made.

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