JOHANNESBURG — Is South Africa poised to become next in the line of one-party dictatorships on this continent? That's the worry among the opposition and many observers after what appeared to be a convincing election victory by the African National Congress yesterday.
Even before the final ballots were counted in the country's second all-race poll, the ANC had claimed 66 percent of the popular vote - just shy of the two-thirds majority needed to singlehandedly change much of the country's Constitution.
Thabo Mbeki, the heir to President Nelson Mandela, celebrated his landslide endorsement at a boisterous victory rally and quickly stressed his party has no plans to use its heightened power for sinister ends.
"The ANC will approach the exercise of power without any arrogance, with humility, with a deep sense of responsibility," Mr. Mbeki said, vowing to "build a South Africa that truly belongs to all who live in it - both black and white."
But opposition parties warned the ANC could muzzle the media and watchdog groups, exert control on the reserve bank, even seize white farmland or make Mbeki another of Africa's presidents for life.
Most neutral analysts do not agree with such dire predictions, but few political observers are happy with Thursday's result.
"This does not bode well for democracy," Thamba Sono, president of the Race Relations Institute of South Africa, said yesterday. "Right now, South Africa looks like a one-party state. This will destroy the competitive spirit that is needed, especially in a newly emerged democracy in Africa."
Economist Azar Jammine says an initial nervous reaction in financial markets had already calmed by the afternoon.
"Still, I don't think foreign investors will take well to such an overwhelming majority - especially given the African experience," says Mr. Jammine, of the Johannesburg think tank Economtrix. "The fear is that, in the long term, you may see the ANC bowing to pressure to abandon market-friendly policy in favor of more socialist and interventionist policies."
But the ANC continued to dismiss such talk as "fear mongering" by white parties. Mbeki has denied he will make any major changes to a Constitution that took two tortuous years of negotiation to construct.
He has repeatedly vowed to "speed up" transformation programs that aim to deliver houses, water, and electricity to the impoverished black majority. He vows to stick with economic policies that attract investment and create jobs while combating crime and corruption.
The party's message was well received by millions of voters. Thousands of people in townships and squatter camps waited all day and night in ballot-box lines that stretched for miles. Even dissatisfied people remained loyal to the party that won their freedom from apartheid oppression in 1994.
"We have to give the ANC another chance," said Ben Shiburi of Soweto, who said he has not been entirely happy with the ANC's first five years in power. "They are trying to solve problems that were created over 300 years of oppression."
The results showed that South African politics is still deeply divided along racial lines. Whites have been left with almost no voice in Parliament. Their votes were split among competing opposition parties.
The latest figures indicated the Democratic Party (DP) - the representative of so-called 'white rage' - would win the fight for status as official opposition. With 9.9 percent of the vote, this second-place showing gives the DP special privileges, such as the right to ask the first question in parliamentary question periods. Its campaign was the most aggressive and controversial of all opposition parties, featuring posters with the slogan "Fight Back." The ANC responded with a poster that urged "Don't Fight Blacks," and many analysts predicted the DP's negative style would backfire.
Instead, the DP trounced the former apartheid power, the New National Party. The NNP had changed its name and tried to broaden its appeal to improve on the 20 percent vote it achieved in 1994. It obtained just 7.5 percent this time around.
"It is very disappointing," former President F.W. de Klerk, told reporters. "It is a setback for nonracial politics."
The Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party was third with 8.3 percent of the vote. Analysts predicted Thursday that the ANC will offer IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi the deputy presidency in the interest of keeping peace between the parties' warring supporters in Kwa-Zulu Natal.
The newest party on the block, the United Democratic Movement, had been hailed as the great hope for a credible, multiracial opposition party. The main appeal was the combination of its leadership - Bantu Holimisa, the black former president of a homeland, and Roelf Meyer, a white defector from the old National Party.
Eighteen hours after polls closed, it had polled just 3.3 percent support. "I would have thought that in the first five years we would have been further along in establishing real multiparty democracy in South Africa," Mr. Meyer told the state radio station yesterday. "But I guess it was not possible yet. The liberation idea was still so strong in the minds of many."