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South Africa's ANC Appears to Be Winner

Black voters' loyalty to the party that liberated them is clear in the lines at the polls. But poverty has shaken the faith of some supporters.

April 15, 2004|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The dominant African National Congress was expected to coast to victory in Wednesday's parliamentary elections despite indications of voter apathy, particularly among jobless young people.

Ten years after the end of the apartheid system, the loyalty of blacks to the party of liberation was clear in the queues of people lining up from dawn. But analyst Tom Lodge, a professor of politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the size of the queues in urban areas was moderate compared with those of the two previous post-apartheid elections.

Despite high unemployment, widespread poverty and an AIDS pandemic that many believe was mishandled by the government, an ANC victory was so certain the independent liberal weekly Mail and Guardian on Friday ran the headline "How ANC Won the Election." The party was well ahead as early returns trickled in Wednesday night, and polls predicted it would win 65% to 70% of the vote. In the last elections, in 1999, it won 66%.

The Democratic Alliance, a predominantly white party that is trying to win black support, is expected to come in a distance second.

President Thabo Mbeki also was certain to be reelected by Parliament for a second and final term. The two main questions were the size of the turnout and whether the ANC would exceed the two-thirds majority it needs to amend the constitution. Mbeki has ruled out the constitutional change that would enable him to run for a third term.

The apartheid system classified people by race, trained blacks for low-paid manual jobs and relegated black and mixed-race people to second-class health and education facilities. Before 1994, only the white minority, about 10% of the population, had full rights.

South Africa's first post-apartheid president, former ANC leader Nelson Mandela, voted Wednesday with obvious relish. "I feel elated that I can ... assert my right as a citizen, and I sincerely hope that the entire world will abandon violence and use peaceful methods of asserting their right as citizens."

Political analyst Patrick Laurence of the independent Helen Suzman Foundation predicted a turnout similar to that in the 1999 elections -- 71% of registered voters.

The election has raised questions about the implications of long-term ANC dominance of South African politics, with opposition parties warning that the country was in danger of heading toward one-party rule.

To many blacks, voting for anyone but the ANC would be unthinkable.

ANC supporters such as Brown Makelo, 34, of Tokoza in eastern South Africa plans to vote for the ANC all his life, and expects his children to do the same because the party ended apartheid. Tokoza was one of the violent "no go" areas in the early 1990s, where hundreds died in ethnic clashes.

"I'll vote ANC until I die. I don't even want to see those opposition parties," Makelo said. "I think it's a good idea to have one party always in government, the ANC. I don't think the ANC could lose touch with the people."

Lodge said the ANC was likely to dominate for 10 more years.

"It's a matter of how much that party is prepared to play by the rules, and how much it's going to allow other parties to grow," Lodge said.

Laurence cited a study by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa that indicated that in Africa faith in democracy declined in long periods of one-party rule and rose again when a change in political power seemed possible.

"There are people who argue that the governance of the ANC is not a threat to democracy but a manifestation of democracy. They say that those who quarrel with this are really quarreling with the substantial majority of the people," Laurence said. But he said the ANC had a tendency to demonize the opposition.

Laurence said the ANC's commitment to democracy was untested because its majority has been so huge.

"The real test is when your majority is dwindling and there's a real prospect of becoming a minority. The test is whether the ruling party is prepared to yield power, and we don't know yet how they will react. It's quite sobering," he said.

Even among ANC supporters lining up to vote Wednesday, there was plenty of dissatisfaction about unemployment and poverty.

"I lost my faith. I'm just voting for the sake of voting. But I'm not happy," said Sindiswa Mpokee, 39, who said she felt "too old" to change parties. A widow living in a shack in Tokoza, she is jobless, as is her 21-year-old son.

One ANC organizer in Tokoza, Constance Thobela, 41, said some people were reluctant to vote because of high unemployment.

Lodge said lower turnouts were expected among young people hit by high unemployment, some conservative white voters who felt unrepresented and mixed-race and Indian voters. Only 47% of those in the 18-25 age group registered.

Thomas Monakali, 27, of Phola Park, also in eastern South Africa, said he wouldn't vote "because the people we are voting for don't do anything for me. I do everything for myself. So what's the point?"

"I'm sitting in a shack," said Thabani Mbokazi, 26. "I have no job. I'm wearing these old shoes. I don't see any point in voting."

One white voter, Anjannette Phillips, a 38-year-old mother of two who lives in Rosettenville, a racially diverse suburb of Johannesburg, said there were too many small opposition parties to mount a credible opposition to the ANC.

Phillips recalled growing up under South Africa's last white president, Frederik W. de Klerk. "Lots of people say, 'I wish I could have that government back.' It'll never be the same. We used to have open doors, open windows. Today, you have to be locked up in your own house."

Just days earlier, Phillips was in her car at a stoplight when someone smashed the passenger-side window and grabbed her handbag.

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