Even before they cast ballots on Wednesday, most South Africans feel certain that they know who will be their next president. Barring a dramatic reversal in the polls, the African National Congress will come out on top, with the ANC's populist leader Jacob Zuma set to be the next president.
But far from discouraging voter turnout, the inevitability of Mr. Zuma's presidency seems likely to drive a record turnout of voters, with an estimated 80 percent of 23 million registered voters expected to cast their votes.
Those who love Zuma see a warm, personable, and deeply rooted man who knows what it means to be poor. Those who hate him see a former ANC intelligence chief with a grade school education; a polygamist who was accused and acquitted of rape; a wheeler-dealer accused of bribe-taking, although corruption charges were eventually dropped. Whether to block him or support him, South Africans are expected toshow up in droves to vote.
"Despite the fact that we already know who is going to be a winner, this is an important election," says Steven Friedman, a political analyst at the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa, a think tank in Tshwane, formerly known as Pretoria. This could be the highest voter turnout since the end of apartheid in 1994, Mr. Friedman says, and a sign of whether the ANC's hold on power – as the party of Nelson Mandela and liberation – is finally starting to slip.
The ANC now faces competition
The energy in this election has as much to do with Zuma as it does with the fact that the ANC finally has competition for the black majority vote, with the formation of a breakaway party known as the Congress of the People, or COPE. "We were getting to the stage, where everyone knew who was going to win, but COPE has shaken things up a bit," says Friedman. "COPE's formation energized politics, not only with their supporters, but they also energized the ANC."
COPE formed in late 2008, a year after an ANC party conference shoved aside then-ANC president Thabo Mbeki, who eventually stepped down as the country's president in September.
Unlike other opposition parties, COPE's leaders have "liberation credentials" from having fought apartheid. Its founders are mainly functionaries loyal to Mr. Mbeki.
"COPE has galvanized youth in a way that hasn't happened before," says Adam Habib, a political analyst and vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. "I think the split in the ANC has energized the COPE and significantly galvanized members of ANC as well. Now anything can happen. Whether the ANC gets two-thirds of the vote or not, we shall see, but I think that question is of symbolic value for how to judge Jacob Zuma's victory."
Despite high levels of discontent in the government – with crumbling infrastructure, overcrowded schools, high unemployment, and lack of drinking water and electricity in poor townships – the ANC's lock on the electorate is so great that one opposition party has printed posters that read "Stop Zuma From Getting Two-Thirds Majority." This is because, despite South Africa's aspirations of being a "rainbow nation" of racial harmony, South Africa's vast majority of citizens are poor and black, and most people vote on issues of identity, black or white, rich or poor.
How would Zuma lead?
If elected, Zuma is likely to be a great delegator, a man who will see his role as a traditional chief, who listens to his advisers, allows them to form a consensus, and then endorses their decision as his own.
"The president is going to appoint a structure in his office, where people can give advice," says Jabulani "Steve" Mabona, a senior ANC member of Zuma's inner circle of advisors. "He'll have financial gurus who can give input."
Unlike President Mbeki, a cerebral man who shied away from public events, Zuma will see his main role as listening to public concerns, and restoring the historic connection of the ANC with its voting base.
While the Mbeki administration won the applause of the business community for helping the national economy grow, Zuma has vowed to ensure that the benefits of that growth begin to be felt by the nation's poorer majority. This means more spending on housing, roads, schools, health clinics, electricity, and water supply to poor urban townships, and less to the leafy suburbs of the rich. "This is why it's important for the ANC to get a two-thirds majority," Mabona says, "because a voter must feel that a government that is in power must have the power to change the issues that matter to people."
Mabona says that people must be patient. "When the [apartheid-era, white-run National Party] government was in charge, the GDP was looking after only 4 million people, the whites, and neglecting 40 million," he says. "When we came to power, we had the same GDP, but now we had to look after 50 million people."
He sighs. "The expectations are too high, and the resources too limited."
For all his populism, Zuma likely will be restrained by the global credit crunch, unable to expand government spendinguntil the global economy rebounds. Yet the ANC's close ideological partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, have already put forward a wish list of policy changes, from higher wages to better regulation of working standards.
It is this populist side that South Africans find so endearing, or alarming.
At political rallies, Zuma often grabs the microphone and sings a somewhat violent song from the struggle days called "Umshini Wami" (Bring me my machine gun). 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.
Yet it may be Zuma's performance on the economy – in incredibly turbulent times – that will make or break his reputation. With an unofficial jobless rate of 40 percent, and a global economic meltdown starting to take effect on South Africa's crucial mining industry, Zuma will have little room for error or extravagance.