Thabo's vote of many colours
Alex Duval Smith watches the ANC prepare for victory in the second election since apartheid ended
The choice of the Indian Ocean port for the ANC's penultimate rally, dubbed "Siyanqoba" (we are winning), was the latest signal of the ruling party's confidence that it has mastered the challenge from the Inkatha Freedom Party, formerly dominant in KwaZulu-Natal.
In the run-up to the first all-race elections, in 1994, clashes between ANC and IFP supporters claimed hundreds of lives in the province. This time, 23,000 security troops have been deployed and free campaigning has been possible virtually everywhere. The IFP's leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who is also Home Affairs Minister and has a good relationship with Mr Mbeki, has even been heard to shout "Viva ANC" at his own rallies. The two parties signed a peace pact earlier this month and have tested it in former no-go areas by campaigning side-by-side - sending a powerful signal that intimidation tactics by warlords, chiefs and party agents are unacceptable.
The Durban rally came at the end of three weeks of intense campaigning by 26 parties, 16 of which are competing for the national vote. The campaign has been remarkable for grassroots calm, the display of the ANC'S extraordinary financial resources, an excess of slogans and a lack of focused debate.
The ANC, boosted by a $20m (pounds 12.5m) donation from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, will win up to two-thirds of the national vote and at least seven out of South Africa's nine provinces. Consequently, it has confidently left the opposition parties - none of which, singly, can hope for more than 10 or 12 per cent of the vote - to scrap over issues such as South Africa's 35 per cent unemployment rate and its rampant crime.
The ruling party, instead, has concentrated on swamping the country with millions of posters, T-shirts and caps. It has also showed a preference for rabble-rousing rallies over question-and-answer sessions.
On the road 10 days ago in the rural Transkei, Mr Mbeki's birthplace and that of a host of leaders of the struggle against apartheid, Nelson Mandela's anointed successor spent the morning briefly reaching for the elusive populist in himself. Born nearly 57 years ago in the Transkei hills, he is nevertheless distant from his roots as a result of boarding school, Sussex University and exile.
During a day which included a visit to his ancestral village, a helicopter drop-in on his mother and a meeting with local business people, Mr Mbeki tried hard to look casual. But the ANC polo shirt just did not go with his navy blue suit. He looked ill at ease with the sheep, slaughtered for him by the elders, and the traditional sorghum beer he was expected to stir.
The evening meeting in the city of Umtata was easier for him as he invited questions from the floor which focused on corruption and inefficiency in the Eastern Cape provincial government. Mr Mbeki was shocked - "We did not win freedom for people to play cards on their computers", he said - and promised to look into the problem.
But while the audience took him on trust, his visit to the Eastern Cape, of which the old Transkei homeland is part, was not a success. The ANC government has neglected this impoverished region almost as badly as did the old apartheid regime. The shepherds and peasant women among its rolling hills feel abandoned by their own sons.
Mr Mbeki had to enlist President Mandela and all the other Xhosa royal blood within the ANC - including the charismatic Winnie Madikizela-Mandela - to travel from village to village, gently coaxing traditional chiefs to back the ruling party. The ANC has brought the chiefs on to the government payroll but these kings and queens who dominate rural life are not all convinced.
"It is sometimes difficult to get the ANC to understand," said Mr Mbeki, "that over many decades of struggle it became urban-based and is relatively insensitive to rural questions... with what has been done it is not possible not to do better." That mea culpa goes a long way towards explaining the ANC's paranoia about parties which appeal to a similar support base and are better at attracting the rural vote.
In the Eastern Cape the rival is called the United Democratic Movement. Its leader, Bantu Holomisa, is a local chief and former ANC cabinet member who was expelled from the ruling party after alleging President Mandela had accepted illicit party funding. His deputy, Roelf Meyer, is a white former National Party minister. This makes the UDM the only opposition party whose appeal is not racially based. It could have surprising success nationally, because it also appeals to members of the Indian community and Afrikaners.
The Western Cape is ruled by the former party of apartheid, now called the New National Party, which wants the return of the death penalty and tells its Coloured (mixed-race) supporters in the townships that the ANC just favours blacks.
Some opinion polls have put the ANC and the NNP neck and neck in the Cape. But South African polls are often out of date, and the province has a huge number of undecided voters. An unknown factor is the support for the Democratic Party, which appeals to wealthy whites.
These regions have seen the most active electioneering, on issues affecting the provincial ballot rather than the national vote. Many South Africans say they intend to split their vote; it is not inconceivable, for example, that a Coloured person in the Western Cape will vote for the ANC nationally and for the law-and-order policies of the NNP provincially.
One of the most striking aspects of the pre-election period - even prompting some of the media to dismiss it as boring - has been the lack of violence. In the run-up to the 1994 election, 10 people were killed each day in KwaZulu-Natal, bombs were exploding and there was endless talk of white right-wing plots.
Dull for the media, perhaps, but the impatience of young South Africans to cast their votes and be part of the democratic process is chastening for observers from Europe or the US.
And at the end of it all, South Africa will set off for a further five years, probably with a strengthened ANC whose politicians will have, briefly, met the people. Mr Mbeki - an intellectual with a big vision of an African Renaissance - will offer a different style from President Mandela's rainbow of hope. But the substance will be similar, just packaged less affably.
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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