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ANC still dominates South Africa politics

ANC, in power since 1994, is expected to win parliamentary elections Wednesday and name Jacob Zuma as president, but an ANC splinter group and other opposition parties hope to increase their presence.

April 19, 2009|Robyn Dixon

SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA — Christopher Sadiki is convinced that Jacob Zuma, the president-in-waiting for the ruling African National Congress, is guilty of corruption. But that won't stop the 21-year-old from choosing the ANC when he votes for the first time this week.

"Corruption is everywhere," he said, shrugging. "They're all corrupt."

And don't ask him about the opposition -- he doesn't want to know.

"I don't support them. I don't know anything about them. I don't even want to know about them," said Sadiki, who lives in a $2-a-week shack in one of Soweto's shantytowns.

Fifteen years after South Africa's first democratic elections, the ANC is predicted to win yet again with a large majority in Wednesday's parliamentary election, which would catapult Zuma into the presidency weeks after corruption charges related to a multibillion-dollar arms deal were dropped.

Opposition parties have managed to attract a sliver of support among whites and the rising black middle class, but the election poses the question of whether they will ever attract the solid support among poor unemployed blacks that is necessary to challenge ANC dominance.

Of the galaxy of opposition parties, only three are expected to attract more than 2% of the vote each, according to a recent poll by the Ipsos-Markinor research firm.

"The biggest problem is that Africa has always had very dominant ruling parties," analyst William Gumede said.

He said the opposition appealed mainly to better-off voters worried about issues such as crime and corruption.

"It seems Zuma and the ANC don't care what the thinking classes think, because the thinking classes won't bring the votes in," Gumede said.

The Ipsos-Markinor poll suggested that the ANC, which first came to power in 1994 under Nelson Mandela, would win about 65% of the vote.

An ANC breakaway group, the Congress of the People, or COPE, launched after President Thabo Mbeki was ousted in September, seemed to offer the possibility of a viable alternative to the ANC. But it has flopped organizationally and is predicted to secure only 8% or 9% of the vote, the poll showed.

The opposition Democratic Alliance, led by a white woman, Helen Zille, won just over 12% in the last election and is predicted to get about 11% this time.

A third group is the Inkatha Freedom Party, which won about 7% of the vote last time.

In the black townships and shantytowns, people such as Sadiki talk about the lack of jobs and services, but the opposition has failed to capitalize on the problems, Gumede said.

"I think the reason this election was so important was that the opposition had a chance to do something, but they failed dismally," he said. "The political space opened up with people leaving the ANC, but they still needed to work hard, which they haven't done."

Ian Davidson, a spokesman for the Democratic Alliance, said voting patterns in South Africa have revolved around race since the first free elections in 1994.

"COPE has now opened up those opportunities in the sense that people feel safe voting outside the ANC," he said. "It's an offshoot of the ANC, so they're not voting against their identity."

Davidson predicted that his party and others in the opposition would form an alliance after the election that eventually be would capable of challenging ANC dominance.

"It's our hope to work closely with them to be able to be in a position together to challenge for power in 2014," he said. "Sixty percent is a large number, but we believe the ANC is falling apart so quickly."

Democratic Alliance leader Zille, whose campaign has targeted some ANC strongholds, warns that South Africa risks becoming a failed state if the ANC's dominance continues.

Opponents in the ANC call her racist and colonialist. Despite the Democratic Alliance's efforts to recruit leading black candidates, some black voters fear that a win by Zille would mean a return to apartheid.

The Soweto shantytown where Sadiki grew up has always voted overwhelmingly ANC and is expected to do so this time around.

But when Sadiki condemned all opposition politicians as corrupt, a quiet voice interrupted. A slight 18-year-old schoolgirl, Numfundo Mlotshwa, also voting for the first time, contradicted him.

"Helen Zille is not corrupt. I think Helen Zille would be the best president for South Africa," said Mlotshwa, chin jutting defiantly, as the young unemployed men, sitting in the sun, gawked at her in surprise. The polls suggest Mlotshwa's view is shared by few.

Davidson argues that if COPE gets even 8% of the votes, it will pave the way for other parties. "What is important is that they have opened up the political space, because more and more people are dissatisfied with the ANC. As Helen would say, it's very difficult for people to cross from one bank of the river to the other. They sometimes need pebbles to help them across."


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