Mandela supports Zuma's hopes of becoming president

(and boosts his bid to stay out of prison)

Facing its first real challenge since the end of apartheid, the African National Congress (ANC) has turned to the man who many wish was still leading South Africa to bolster the hopes of the leader expected to take over in late April.

Nelson Mandela came out of political retirement yesterday to give his public backing to Jacob Zuma, the ANC leader who is aiming for the highest office on 22 April under a poisonous cloud of suspicion.

"Despite the rain, you have all come here in numbers to show your commitment to the ANC," he told the crowd. "Long live the ANC!"

Madiba, as Mandela is known to his compatriots, has strictly rationed his appearances in recent years and avoided siding with either of the ruling party's warring factions. So his appearance at the rally is being seen as an indication of real concern within the ANC over the April election .

While it is practically unthinkable that anything will now stop Mr Zuma from taking the presidency, the ANC's margin of victory is expected to decide the shape of politics in Africa's biggest economy for a generation. His supporters are banking on retaining a two-thirds majority, while his many opponents aim to deny him the 66 per cent share that would allow him to change the constitution so as to give himself immunity in office.

A shade less than 15 years after the end of apartheid, it's an unlikely twist that Mr Zuma's main threat at the ballot box is coming from a white politician, Helen Zille. The leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) is known to those who champion her as the hardest-working woman in South Africa, to cartoonists as GodZille and to many outside the country as the current "world mayor of the year" for her stewardship of Cape Town.

Fresh from launching the DA's campaign with a tub-thumping performance in Soweto, using a stump speech that showcased her fluent Afrikaans and Xhosa, she says that her job is to "ensure that the elections are as difficult as possible" for the ANC. That task, she admits, has already been helped beyond measure by Mr Zuma himself.

An undeniably charismatic but divisive figure, the man who began his life as a Zulu goat herder has won his internecine war with ANC rival Thabo Mbek, but at a tremendous cost. Already the landscape is unfamiliar for the ruling party, as daily defections continue to the splinter group, the Congress of the People (COPE), that was set up by supporters of Mr Mbeki after he was forced to resign as the country's president last year.

However, early indications suggest that while COPE will split the ANC vote, it is unlikely to make significant inroads in parliament. "COPE is more of an opportunity than a threat," Ms Zille insists.

Despite her populist performances on the campaign trail, and a smattering of non-white faces among its frontline candidates, there is no escaping the whiteness of the DA. Its strongest support remains in the wealthy suburbs of the Western Cape. "We are here to break barriers of race and ethnicity, you can only have democracy if governments can change through the ballot box," she says.

At the centre of her criticisms of the ANC, and at the heart of much that has gone wrong post-apartheid South Africa, is the infamous 1998 arms deal. The surprise decision by Mr Mbeki's new government to spend billions of rand on a range of unwanted armaments that met no discernible national security threat has put corruption at the centre of the political discourse ever since.

The investigations into the deal became the battleground where Mr Mbeki and his then-deputy Mr Zuma slugged it out. The fallout has split the ANC, tarnished its image, and undermined the independence of the judiciary. It has also left Mr Zuma still facing corruption charges. Ms Zille believes, "the problem is not Zuma, it is the ANC. It is an elite of insiders, a small bunch who share out perks, posts, tenders and favours among friends." The description she returns to again and again is that of a "closed crony-system". She is withering in her assessment of Kgalema Motlanthe, the man keeping Mr Zuma's presidential seat warm until late April.

"Motlanthe's mandate from the ANC is to get Zuma off the hook, that's what he's there for." She says that all the ANC can think of in reply is racial politics. "They use the race card to paint us into a corner."

Seepho Seepe, the head of South Africa's Race Relations commission and a respected political analyst, says the DA's message is getting through, almost. "The DA will do well and unlike COPE they are not the ANC in disguise. They've penetrated black areas and taken advantage of the weakness of the ANC since its split."

The ANC is losing "the aura of the struggle" and with it will go its two-thirds share of the vote. Mr Seepe expects COPE – led by Mosiuoa Lekota who was defence minister in the aftermath of the arms deal – to be remembered as an ANC rebellion that lasted for one election only. "I don't think it will survive, it exists only to stop Zuma." He is also unequivocalin rating the Mbeki presidency a"disaster": "Education collapsed, health collapsed and crime exploded."

South Africa's leading pollster, Lawrence Schlemmer is more generous to the ruling party, crediting them with "a significant expansion of basic services and welfare." However, he also cites their "failures in education, crime, health, immigration and poverty alleviation." The result, Professor Schlemmer says, is discontent among 30-40 per cent of the population, making it possible that the ANC could drop from 70 to 50 per cent of the vote, opening the way to a coalition.

Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC MP who as head of a parliamentary oversight committee was at the eye of the storm over the arms deal, believes that won't happen this time. "This will be the first election where they lose support," he concedes, but "internally, they are talking about 10 per cent."

Mr Feinstein, who resigned as MP in protest at the ANC's handling of the arms deal, says a Zuma presidency will see more infighting and paranoia that characterised the Mbeki years. The party has become a place where people "use dirt on each other to gain political ascendancy". And no one had done this better, he asserts, than Mr Zuma.

The MP of seven years believes "it has got to a point where the ANC is the problem", but he is not prepared to predict success for the DA leader Ms Zille. "I'm not sure she's prepared to give up the [party] leadership, which is what the DA requires if it's to become a meaningful force."