ROCK / Rock for democracy: MTV's success in bringing America's youth to the ballot box has inspired the ANC. Marek Kohn reports

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AROUND the world, political parties to the left of centre have been taking a vicarious, if diluted, pleasure in President Clinton's victory. They have also been studying the Clinton campaign for tricks that might help them win their own elections.

Most have experience of their own to draw upon; the African National Congress, however, is not so fortunate. Not only has it been prevented from contesting elections, but its principal constituency has never been allowed to vote. ANC thinkers have been intrigued by Clinton's success in two areas: with black voters and with the young. Cultural activists have also noted the effectiveness of the Rock The Vote campaign, a music industry initiative to persuade young Americans to exercise their democratic rights.

In London, the triumph of the Clinton bandwagon has spurred Zabalaza, a cultural grouping, to stage a conference, 'Voicing Visions', this weekend. It is intended as a preliminary to a major conference, 'Culture and Democracy', to be held in Johannesburg in April. There are plans to conclude the event with a concert on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent much of his incarceration. The London conference will feature music too, albeit at the less symbolic venue of Brixton Recreation

Centre, with a Saturday night concert headlined by the Bheki Mseleku Band.

Although elections are probably a minimum of a year away, the ANC has a huge amount of ground to cover. Cultural campaigning at present involves sending theatre groups into black communities to illustrate the basics of voting: that a cross indicates

endorsement rather than rejection, for example. The comparisons with the United States are stark. There, the white middle-class youth vote was drummed up by MTV, with racy public service announcements, star endorsements, and 'Choose or Lose' slots covering the campaign. MTV is owned by Sumner M Redstone, an active Clinton supporter, and although the network was at pains to avoid charges of bias, the mood of the times ensured that coaxing out the youth vote worked against George Bush.

In South Africa, the medium that reaches the masses is radio, and even on the independent stations, the only exposure the ANC is likely to get will be what it can afford to pay for. It may also find artists reluctant to endorse it publicly, partly because identifying with a particular party may be risky, and partly because, over the years, ANC activists have exhausted much of their goodwill by handling artists insensitively.

Nowadays, they are careful not to sound like commissars. At a deeper level, there is a feeling that culture as a whole has to cease defining itself around the negative pole of apartheid. 'We have to go out on our own strength without the crutch of apartheid,' says Mandla Langa of the ANC in London. Sloganising is out, he says. The problem seems to be that the old culture of resistance is fading, but nothing has emerged to replace it.

According to the jazz musician Hugh Masekela, now returned from exile, there is a basic and dreadful reason for this. 'People don't go to concerts when their lives are in danger,' he points out. 'All these conferences, I'm not against them, but I don't think they're going to have any effect on this place. First of all, the violence has to be removed.'