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ANC victory in South Africa a watershed for party

By Samson MulugetaContributor / April 25, 2009

Johannesburg, South Africa

As the final vote countdown for South Africa's fourth democratic election wound down today, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) appeared tantalizingly close to clinching a two-thirds majority that would allow it to change the Constitution if it wished to do so.

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No one expects any radical constitutional amendments from the ANC, which has had a stranglehold on this country's politics since emerging victorious over the apartheid government in 1994. And the soon-to-be president, Jacob Zuma, has pledged to serve only one five-year term. But the two-thirds mark is a psychological watershed for both the party and its opponents.

The strong ANC showing of more than 66 percent was a surprise to many analysts, who had predicted serious fallout from the controversy surrounding Mr. Zuma, whose prosecution for corruption was dropped on a technicality just weeks before election day.

"The ANC's level of mobilization and organization was absolutely amazing," says filmmaker Jihan el-Tahri, whose documentary, "Behind the Rainbow," released last year, chronicled the party's evolution from a liberation movement to a government.

Ms. el-Tahri credited the boost to Nelson Mandela, whose well-timed appearances for the party galvanized ANC loyalists. "He was there with his children and grandchildren showing support just by his presence, and that meant a lot," she says.

Turnout was huge – more than 77 percent, according to the Independent Electoral Commission, which also noted that more than 23 million in the nation of 47 million had registered to vote.

The vote came after a riveting sequence of events over the past two years that saw the indictment of Zuma on corruption charges, and his subsequent firing as deputy president by his boss, former President Thabo Mbeki.

Zuma not only survived his political banishment but also a potentially fatal blow when he was acquitted of rape charges. He subsequently went on to oust Mr. Mbeki as head of the ANC, and then engineered Mbeki's ouster – just a few months before Mbeki's tenure was to expire – and his replacement by a caretaker president, Kgalema Motlanthe.

The machinations resulted in the party's first serious crisis when Mbeki loyalists bolted to create their own party, the Congress of the People (COPE), which went on to garner less than 10 percent of the votes cast on April 22.

Businessman Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairman of the South African Institute for International Studies (and younger brother of the former president), says that COPE marginalized itself when it chose to target the black middle-class vote instead of the masses.