The Monitor's View

A promising rivalry in South Africa

In elections, the opposition chipped away at ANC dominance.

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Congratulations are due to South Africa. It just held its most competitive national elections – the nation's fourth – since the end of apartheid 15 years ago.

While the African National Congress again won by a wide margin in the April 22 vote, the opposition parties were apparently able to chip off more of the ANC's monolithic block. This growing pushback makes for a healthier democracy in Africa's largest economy.

But politics in this nation of nearly 50 million people is still largely driven by personality, race, and ethnicity. Until political parties evolve into a choice between ideas, they won't serve South Africans as well as they otherwise could. One concern: When the new parliament meets next month to formally elect ANC leader Jacob Zuma as president, it could usher in a period of dangerous ethnic division.

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The ANC has a proud heritage as the liberation party of Nelson Mandela. Since it came to power in the 1994 elections, it has presided over a growing economy – helped by the lifting of international anti-apartheid sanctions.

It has built nearly 3 million low-cost homes. About 80 percent of households now have electricity and clean water. Schools and free health clinics have been set up. A small black middle class, dubbed the "black diamonds," has emerged, and South Africa has an independent judiciary and free press.

Here's the flip side to ANC rule. Unofficial unemployment stands at about 40 percent. AIDS, poverty, and violent crime drag down the country. The wealth gap is widening, with mostly whites on the positive side. Without a strong opposition, government corruption has taken hold. Effectively, South Africa has been a one-party state.

Enter the election of 2009. Final results have yet to be released, but for the first time, it looks like the ANC lost control of one of Africa's provinces – Western Cape, a tourist destination and the richest province.

It's also home base to the opposition Democratic Alliance, led by Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille. Her support comes from whites and people of mixed race. The DA looks to have captured at least half of the vote in the province – a blow to Mr. Zuma and the ANC, which can no longer claim they speak for all of South Africa's nine provinces. And with 40 percent of the ballots counted Thursday, the DA appears to have received about 16 percent of the national vote, compared to about 66 percent for the ANC.

Enter also a new party, the Congress of the People, or COPE. Its backers are mostly loyalists to former president Thabo Mbeki. They broke off from the ANC when the intellectual Mr. Mbeki was ousted last year from the party leadership by the charismatic "man of the people," Zuma. It looks like COPE captured 8 percent of the vote – less than expected.

These inroads against one-party rule can help check the ANC monopoly on power. But South Africa's parties have yet to mature into entities that represent different ideologies.

The DA perhaps comes closest as a party of the middle class and business interests – but its makeup is still largely related to race and ethnicity and spans a broad spectrum of views. Its campaign message was simply, "Stop Zuma." The DA brands him as corrupt. Indeed, he recently escaped fraud and corruption charges, which were dropped – not for lack of merit, but because of a technicality.

The ANC and COPE represent parties based on personality and tribe. Zuma has the Zulus behind him; COPE is home to Mbeki's Xhosas. Zuma is fiercely true to his ethnic roots and practices, including polygamy. The fatal shooting of a COPE official on election day – political motives are suspected – does not bode well. Meanwhile, it's not clear where Zuma stands in his ideology, being at the same time a professed socialist and a backer of South Africa's market economy.

With this election, the country enters a post-liberation era. A new generation of voters has emerged that didn't experience the ANC's struggles against apartheid. But neither have young South Africans known anything but ANC rule. If this vote signals increasing political competition, then this nation – a critical model for the rest of Africa – might be better able to tackle its remaining challenges.

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