AP/Themba Hadebe [31K]
ROODEPLAAT, South Africa (AP) Robby Sutherland, former right-wing racist, calmly picked up the microphone in front of a meeting filled with black laborers and nearly exploded with adrenalin.
``Power to the people,'' the white Afrikaner politician screamed in Zulu. ``Viva ANC, viva African National Congress.'' His audience, elated, jumped from their seats and waved their fists.
For most of his quarter-century in politics, Sutherland was one of the most conservative, anti-black politicians in South Africa. Then six months ago, after what he says was an epiphany, he joined the African National Congress the communist-allied, multiracial party that helped overthrow apartheid and now rules this country. Now, he is an ANC candidate in Dec. 5 local elections.
The reversal may give a picture of how the ANC and a reorganized opposition are faring at the grass-roots level, six years after apartheid was officially scrapped: Sutherland and a few other white rightists have undergone political conversions and joined the party that has won overwhelming electoral support since the country's first all-race elections in 1994.
At a Sutherland rally
AP/Themba Hadebe [26K]
``If you can't fight 'em, join 'em,'' said Fanie Fourie, a 60-year-old farmer in Roodeplaat, a rural district in the northeast, who left the conservative Freedom Front for the ANC.
Fourie hopes to recruit more whites to the ruling party.
``If there are only blacks, blacks, blacks, they will only look after themselves. But the more even it is, then you can look after everyone,'' he said.
In recent years, several high-profile members of the National Party, creator of apartheid, have joined the ANC, including Pik Botha, a former foreign minister. But the ANC has opened its big tent wider and welcomed people from even farther across the political spectrum.
Earlier this month, Craig Kotze, a former spy for the apartheid regime, was jubilantly embraced when he announced at a news conference with Safety and Security Minister Steve Tshwete that he had ``finally come home to the ANC.''
Kotze insists he is not an opportunist, but a sincere convert who ``needed to get out of the ghettoes of my mind'' and become a bridge between the ANC and Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch settlers who came to South Africa 350 years ago.
``We can't just sit by and not let our skills be useful for a new South Africa,'' he told The Associated Press.
Sutherland, 51, said he is trying to do that as an ANC candidate for the Roodeplaat council. He promises white farmers he will reduce their property taxes and get their black laborers better treatment and wages.
But his previous politics weren't so evenhanded.
When Sutherland first became politically active, he found the National Party too moderate.
``At the time I was completely against any man, woman and human that was black,'' Sutherland said.
He joined the ultraconservative Afrikaner Herstigte Nasionale Party, and served nine years in Parliament until 1986. More recently, he was a local council member for the Freedom Front.
Then, at the beginning of May, Defense Minister Patrick Lekota, an ANC man, gave him some party literature. Days later, Sutherland decided to join.
``I didn't expect the ANC government to be so open-minded and let our white people join and be a part of them,'' he said. ``This is the most democratic party ever in South Africa and that moved me.''
The ANC is thrilled to have him.
Before Sutherland joined, fewer than 20 of his district's 3,600 white farmers were ANC members. Now, between 500 and 1,000 have joined, said Obed Maila, the local ANC mayoral candidate.
``The ANC is not a party for blacks. It is for all the people. They have heeded that call,'' Maila said.
At the Roodeplaat meeting, Sutherland was joined by fellow ANC candidate George Dickinson, a former apartheid-era police officer who used to shoot water cannons, tear gas and bullets at ANC demonstrators.
Many of the nearly 80 blacks at the meeting said Sutherland's past didn't trouble them.
``We lack so many things, like houses, electricity, etc. I think he will do a good job for us,'' said Stanley Ramusi, a 27-year-old who works painting lines in the street.
Fourie, the white farmer, said many of his neighbors were shunning him.
``But in 10 years they will also join the ANC, because that is the party you must go with,'' he said. ``You must be in the game to rule the game.''
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