ANC victory in South Africa a watershed for party

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.

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.

"They painted themselves into a small corner," Mbeki says. "Many people thought the ANC was going to struggle to keep its two-thirds majority."

COPE and the white-dominated Democratic Alliance (DA) did slightly dent the ANC in most parts of the country, but the loss was more than made up for in the Zulu heartland KwaZulu Natal, Zuma's homeland, where the ANC went on to a solid victory.

The ANC delivered a blow to the Inkatha Freedom Party of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a traditional Zulu leader who was a key figure around the time of transition to democracy. Figures show that the ANC will rule the province, which was formerly dominated by Inkhata.

But in the Western Cape Province, which includes Cape Town, the opposition DA gave a surprisingly strong showing, coming up with 50 percent of the vote and catapulting its leader Helen Zille, the mayor of Cape Town, to premiere or provincial governor. The DA garnered about 16 percent of the total vote.

Moeletsi Mbeki said that the ANC is still seen by many black South Africans as the guarantor of their prosperity and protector from the 4 million whites who still control more than 90 percent of the economy.

"The key to understanding why the ANC has a lock on two-thirds is to realize that about 50 percent of people are stuck in poverty, and another 20 percent or so of the black middle class and the beneficiaries of the BEE [Black Economic Empowerment] policies are dependent on government either through employment or social grants," he adds. "Whether it was Zuma or the angel Gabriel heading the party, as long as the ANC controlled the government, they are going to vote for the ANC."

Raenette Taljaard, the director of the Helen Suzman Foundation and former member of Parliament for the DA, had six years to watch Zuma in action as he presided over Parliament.

"There is this caricature of him as the man in the leopard skin, which is misleading," Ms. Taljaard says. "I haven't met anyone who doesn't instinctively like him."

But, she says, "Zuma is facing an educational crisis potentially greater than the HIV/AIDS crisis. There is a fear of a revolving door of BEE Mbeki elites being replaced by Zuma elites."

She noted that Zuma owes his political survival to labor union leaders and officials of the South African Community Party, part of the ANC governing coalition, who came to his aid when he was fighting for his political life. "There is lots of loyalty to be paid off ... [a] deep expectation of a quid pro quo," she adds.

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