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Thursday, June 3, 1999 Published at 02:55 GMT 03:55 UK


World: Africa

Doubts in the Karoo



By News Online's Justin Pearce

The farm workers arrived at the polling station huddled on the backs of trucks.

This polling station was on a farm near Sutherland, about 400km north-west of Cape Town in the arid Karoo region.

And shortly after the polls opened at 7am, the white farmers arrived driving their bakkies - the small trucks which are an essential part of farm life in South Africa - with their staff riding on the back.

South African Elections
Some of the more philanthropic farmers had installed canopies on their bakkies. Otherwise, the labourers rode in the open, as the first rays of the sun started to nudge the temperature above zero.

One man had come prepared, wearing a woolly hat with South Africa's post-apartheid flag embroidered on the front.

But he was going to vote for the New National Party.

"We want things to carry on the way they are," he said.

"Everything comes from the white people. I've never suffered hunger. To suffer hunger would be a terrible thing."

Backwater

The Karoo, a high plateau given over mostly to sheep farming, makes up about 20% of South Africa's land area.

But the scarcity of its population has meant that the social changes that have swept South Africa over the past century have bypassed the Karoo.

The farm workers who are queuing to vote under the corrugated iron verandah roof of the farmhouse have the high cheekbones, the slender physique and the brown skin of the Khoi-San people who occupied the western half of the country before white settlers arrived.

For generations, they have lived in rudimentary houses on white-owned farmland, dependent on their employers for almost every need.

"I would want to vote for the white people - the black people don't know what to do" said one middle-aged worker, who had been turned away from the polling station because he had not known the correct procedure for voter registration.

Most of the workers agreed that the NNP was the party for them - although one said he would vote for the Democratic Party, because it seemed to reflect Christian values better than the others.

But he said he had voted for the NP five years ago, and might even consider voting ANC in the future.

"We're on the farms, we don't know who is who," he explained.

One of the bakkie-drivers undertook to explain his employees' position.

"The workers have no idea what the parties stand for. They are like lost children. The ANC is doing nothing for them."

Whites defect

But while most of the workers are backing the NNP, many of the white farming folk, who used to vote the Nationalists into power year after year, are now having second thoughts.

Some of them say that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's revelations about South Africa's past have undermined the party's credibility.

Others doubt the sincerity of a party which once branded the ANC as a bitter enemy, but whose MPs were now happy to work with their former foe.

Disillusioned, the white farmers are fleeing in both directions - some to the parties of the far right, others to the Democratic Party which in the old days attracted only a tiny minority of white voters.

"The government is making us fire workers," one farm owner complained, arguing that the minimum wage introduced by the ANC government was forcing people like himself to lay off staff.

Another genial Boer said the election was about "checks and balances".

"It is important that there is no two-thirds majority," he said, echoing the concerns of all the South African opposition parties that the ANC might gain enough seats in parliament to change the constitution unilaterally.

But for many of the whites, the concerns are local ones: the state of the roads (important) when the local shop might be 50km away - or the rumoured closure of the hospital in Sutherland, something which would necessitate a journey of over 100km for medical care.

"These things cause great grief for us country folk," says a woman in a perm and a denim jacket, driving a bright red bakkie.

But she is unable to identify a party which can be relied upon to put things right.

"Some of the present politicans are on the right path - others are on the corrupt path, only furthering their own interests."



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