Seven killed near polling stations during South African local elections

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - A violent shootout that began near a polling station killed six people Tuesday during South Africa's second all-race municipal elections.

A seventh person was killed at another polling station, though officials doubted the death was election-related.

Despite the shootings, election officials and analysts said the poll was orderly and relatively free of the widespread violence and intimidation that marred previous elections.

''In previous elections, we've had voting stations overrun by panicky mobs, and there's been a bit more obvious intimidation,'' said Paul Graham, executive director of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa.

The ruling African National Congress is expected to win control of a majority of the nation's towns and cities, but it is receiving a strong challenge from the main opposition Democratic Alliance in some areas.

The alliance, a coalition of the liberal Democratic Party and the New National Party, successor to the apartheid ruling party, is expected to win the most votes in Cape Town.

The election had shorter lines and waits than previous post-apartheid elections.

Political analysts had predicted widespread voter apathy and a lack of enthusiasm with the government of President Thabo Mbeki would lead to a low turnout among the country's 18.4 million registered voters. However, election officials said turnout was strong.

The elections will slash the number of municipalities from 843 to 284 and create six ''megacities,'' each presided over by a single mayor. More than 30,000 candidates from 79 parties ran for 8,900 seats.

In Katlehong, a poor township near Johannesburg, five men and a woman were killed in a shooting near the polling station in a squatter camp.

Police arrested five suspects, but had not established a motive and did not know whether the violence was election-related, Superintendent Charmaine Muller said.

However, the United Democratic Movement, a small opposition party, said the shootings were aimed at its members.

Party officials identified three of the bodies as party members, said Malizole Diko, the party's secretary-general.

Political violence in the area claimed at least 13 lives last year, the South African Press Association reported. Many UDM members fled that violence, but returned Tuesday to vote, Diko said.

It was ''highly possible'' ANC supporters were behind the attack, he said.

''At this stage one doesn't really want to point fingers, but one also doesn't want to be naive and pretend that all is well in that particular area,'' he said. ''The tension has always been there ... one might assume that this might have been a continuation of that.''

Nkenke Kekana, an ANC spokesman, condemned the violence and said his party and its supporters had nothing to do with it.

The polling station was closed for about two hours after the shootings, but then reopened and voters returned, said Terry Tselane, electoral officer for Gauteng province.

The UDM withdrew its election observers from the polling station because they deemed it unsafe, Diko said.

A voter also was killed in Somkele, about 120 miles north of Durban, but a spokesman for the local election board, Musa Zondi, said the shooting was not election-related.

Mbeki dismissed concerns South Africans were not enthusiastic about the election.

''I am absolutely certain there is no voter apathy,'' he said as he cast his vote Tuesday in Pretoria.

But Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon said the ruling party's ineffectiveness made voters stay at home. ''When change does not happen and bread and butter issues tackled - people become cynical and disillusioned,'' he said.

The party has criticized the government for being slow in delivering services to the poor and for its inability to curb crime and corruption.


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