Opposition parties vie for second place as ANC maintains decisive lead in polls

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The Independent Online

The headline said it all. Before even one vote has been cast in next week's South African election, the Mail & Guardian brassily predicted the result: "How the ANC won the election." There is little chance it will be wrong.

The headline said it all. Before even one vote has been cast in next week's South African election, the Mail & Guardian brassily predicted the result: "How the ANC won the election." There is little chance it will be wrong.

Faced with a splintered opposition and still cashing in on its liberation dividend, only a seismic upset could rob the African National Congress of victory in next Wednesday's poll. The latest estimates give President Thabo Mbeki's party 65 per cent of votes, a little more than Nelson Mandela garnered in the historic first election a decade ago.

Now the election question hinges on second place - which party will gobble up the most of the ANC's crumbs, and what role race will play in dividing up the vote.

Elsewhere in Africa, such a foregone conclusion would stink of authoritarian politics, intimidated opponents and a rotten election system. South Africans have no such fears. The national electoral commission has completed a smart, computerised count centre, and rigging is considered such a remote possibility that the EU and UN are not even bothering to deploy poll monitors. Such is South Africa's democratic miracle.

As decades of racist white rule drew to a close 10 years ago, such a bright future was far from certain. Nervy tension and violence overshadowed campaigning as white extremists planted car bombs near the ANC headquarters and secretly plotted the overthrow of any new black government. Bloody confrontations in the townships between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party resulted in thousands of deaths. In the leafy suburbs, middle-class whites, faced with the prospect of evaporating privilege, stockpiled food or prepared to flee the country.

Today the ANC's main headache is winning the two provinces it failed to capture last time around. But its electoral juggernaut is not running on a path of universal contentment. Although some blacks have done well in the past decade, most remain miserably poor. A fiscally conservative economic policy has brought steady growth, low inflation and plaudits from Western economists, but failed dismally to create jobs. About 40 per cent of South Africans are unemployed in a society with a wealth gap second only to Brazil.

A poll last October found 70 per cent of blacks felt the ANC had failed to deliver on its promises. Election support slipped in rural areas in the 1999 elections, a trend analysts predict will continue this time around. Even Mr Mbeki's mother, Epainette, agrees with the criticism. "I stand on the side of the people," she told a reporter at her rural home this week.

But most blacks, who make up three-quarters of South Africa's 45 million people, remain emotionally indebted to the ANC for ending white rule in 1994. Most will display their gratitude at the polls, a bedrock of support the opposition is desperate to erode.

The main contenders should be the Democratic Alliance (DA) party, led by the pugilistic Tony Leon. To increase its strength, the DA has formed an unlikely coalition with the Inkatha Freedom Party of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose power base is in KwaZulu-Natal province. An aggressive opposition leader, Mr Leon regularly lambastes Mr Mbeki over perceived failings such as Aids, crime and his reluctance to criticise the dictatorial President Robert Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

The past month has seen DA rallies staged all over South Africa, from the ANC stronghold of Soweto to the farmlands of Mpumalanga in a bid for the black vote. But analysts say Mr Leon will have trouble shaking the perception that his is a white-dominated party.

Instead, the rising opposition star is Patricia de Lille, the feisty leader of the smaller Independent Democrats Party. South Africa's best known female politician, Ms de Lille has a penchant for stinging soundbites and publicity stunts designed to embarrass the ANC. As a coloured woman, she can appeal to liberal whites and blacks alike. But her popularity is largely untested, and her predictions of 10 per cent support are viewed with scepticism.

The ANC has countered opposition offensives with some deft electioneering. Mr Mbeki, who is widely seen as an aloof and stubborn intellectual, led a countrywide neighbourhood canvassing campaign. The stiff President, previously averse to baby-kissing, has been photographed handing out pamphlets and wearing out shoe-leather going door-to-door, listening to voter concerns.

Although this is clearly part of a PR offensive, voters have responded warmly. A notable campaign absentee, however, has been his predecessor Mr Mandela. As the lionised father of the nation, the ANC might have been expected to capitalise on his stature to solidify its vote. Party strategists say they are avoiding over-reliance on the ageing Nobel prize-winner. However, his well-documented antipathy towards Mr Mbeki is probably also a factor.

Nevertheless, when South Africa's next president is inaugurated on 27 April - a decade to the day after the historic 1994 poll - there is little doubt that Mr Mbeki will be stepping forward.

What has changed in South Africa?

Health

The Aids pandemic is South Africa's towering human challenge. More than 5 million South Africans are HIV-positive but delay and doubt have blighted the response, arguably costing tens of thousands of lives. Thabo Mbeki initially questioned the link between HIV and Aids. After much pressure, the government has started distributing free, life-saving anti-retroviral drugs.

Crime

With 20,000 murders a year South Africa is one of the world's most dangerous countries. The government claims that the rate has now stabilised and the murder rate has fallen from 67 per 1,000 a decade ago to 47 per 1,000 today. According to farming groups there have been 8,417 farm attacks since 1991 and 1,394 farmers and farm-workers have been killed.

Land

One of the great unresolved post-apartheid issues. More than 80 per cent of commercial farmland is still in white hands despite an ambitious plan to transfer it to landless blacks. Discontent over the slow pace of reform has sparked protests in townships, with some residents squatting on white farms. The government has pledged to transfer 30 per cent of farmland to blacks by 2015.

Housing

The provision of housing and fresh water for more than eight million people has been one of the ANC government's great successes. Electricity and phone lines are snaking across black townships ignored by the apartheid government, but some poor have had water and electricity supplies cut off after failing to pay bills. More than 60 per cent of South Africans live in middle-class conditions today; it was 46 per cent in 1994.

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