Nelson Mandela has always been a hard act to follow.
At an African National Congress (ANC) rally today, ahead of Wednesday's elections, the former president of South Africa and famous political prisoner sparked cheers among the tens of thousands of ANC supporters assembled.
His role at the rally – as it was when Mr. Mandela was the first post-apartheid president – was to reassure South Africans that the ANC government would stand for reconciliation and peace, as well as correcting historic injustices.
In a pre-recorded message broadcast at the stadium, the elder statesman reminded ANC voters what their party stood for.
"As we strive to secure a decisive victory for our organisation in the upcoming elections, we must remember our primary task. It is to eradicate poverty and ensure a better life for all," Mandela said.
But unlike the elections of 1994 that made Mandela the first black president of South Africa, the elections on April 22 will be one of the most competitive in the post-apartheid South Africa's brief history.
In past elections, the ANC stood like a colossus over its smaller rivals – from the mainly white liberal Democratic Alliance to the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party to the conservative Afrikaner party, the Freedom Front Plus. But this time, the ballot will give voters the chance to vote for a party that shares the ANC's strong "liberation" credentials, but less of the ANC's negative baggage.
The recent emergence of the Congress of the People (COPE) – made up mainly of former ANC party members loyal to former South African President Thabo Mbeki – has been greeted as a dramatic shift in South African politics, and the first sign that the ANC, the party of Mandela, may face a real competition for the liberal, poor, and working class voting majority who have supported them in the past.
"This is the first election where these seems a possibility the ANC vote will drop," says Steven Friedman, a senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa, a think tank in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called. "The ANC may lose the Western Cape, and the ANC may lose the two-thirds majority it has had since 1994. And while they will still be in power, that means it will have to work for the vote far more than it ever has."
The honeymoon's over
Whatever the results of the 2009 elections, it's clear from the public mood that the ANC's post-liberation honeymoon is over.
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.
"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."
"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.
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.