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Nelson Mandela boosts Zuma at final ANC campaign rally

South Africa's ruling party candidate, Jacob Zuma, vows no constitutional changes ahead of April 22 vote.

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Unlike parties in other countries that built their reputations by throwing out colonial masters – some of whom, like the Indian National Congress of Mahatma Gandhi, ruled for three decades before facing a serious challenge – the ANC has hit harder times and lost voter support after a mere decade and a half. While few expect the ANC to lose power in Wednesday's vote, many South Africans see this as a turning point for the ANC and a healthy sign for multi-party democracy in South Africa.

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"I think we can see COPE as the product of internal divisions within the ANC for the past four years or so," says Aubrey Matshiqi, a senior political analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, and a former member of the ANC himself. "These divisions and tensions may act as a crucible that purifies our thoughts about democracy and raises the democratic experience."

"I don't think that the issues that COPE raises – such as the rule of law and of constitutionality and defending an independent judiciary – are going to rate highly in these elections, particularly among the poor," adds Mr. Matshiqi. "But if the ANC majority falls from its 70 percent levels in the 2004 elections to 63 or 64 percent, the ANC may be forced to address these issues."

Adam Habib, a political analyst and vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, argues that the real race will be for second place.

"Who becomes the leader of the opposition, that is the second race," says Mr. Habib.

For all its hype, COPE remains doggedly in third place, with 8.5 percent in recent opinion polls, behind the Democratic Alliance, with 10 percent.

"Why is that important? It's important because after the elections, we will see a reconfiguration of the opposition parties. If DA is No. 2, then it will be in the dominant position, but then it will carry the baggage of the DA," says Habib.

In the South African context, the prominence of white politicians in the Democratic Alliance has limited its broader appeal to the black majority. "But if COPE is No. 2, then it will have the pedigree of a liberation movement," and in time, could whittle away at the ANC's traditional support among poor and middle class blacks, says Habib.

Zuma's leadership

Leading the ANC into these elections is Mr. Zuma, a former head of intelligence for the ANC's military wing, whose personal gifts and past mistakes make front page headlines on a daily basis.

Embraced by the ANC's left-wing partners, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, for his promises to help the poor and working class, Zuma is famous (and infamous) for singing a somewhat violent song called "Umshini Wami" (Bring me my machine gun) at political rallies.

Yet Zuma has also worked hard to gain the acceptance of South Africa's mainly white business community, and to portray himself as a pragmatist who will keep the economy going.

To rebut opposition warnings that the ANC under Zuma would rewrite the nation's constitution, widely seen as the most liberal in terms of civil rights and political expression, Zuma told ANC supporters at the rally on Sunday, "In 15 years that the ANC has been in power, the ANC has never used its electoral mandate to change the constitution and it has no intention of doing so."

Instead, Zuma said that the ANC would work together with its "partners," mainly trades unions and left-wing parties, to make sure that the nation's prosperity is felt by a wider swath of the population, including the estimated 40 percent of the nation's population who have no jobs.