MUCH of the international media attention in April was focussed on the election process in India. The general elections in South Africa in late April drew less attention in comparison despite the fast-changing political equations there. The election results have cleared the way for Jacob Zuma to take over the presidency in May. The victory of the African National Congress (ANC) under the leadership of Zuma was a foregone conclusion, but many observers had expected the new political party, the Congress of the People (COPE), made up of former ANC members, to give it a tough fight.
In the event, the ANC narrowly missed getting the two-thirds majority in parliament, which enables the ruling party to amend the Constitution if needed. Preventing the ANC from getting this was the major goal of the opposition. The ANC polled 65.9 per cent of the votes.
COPE, which was expected to emerge as the second biggest party, managed only around 8 per cent of the votes. Its leaders, however, pointed out that it was still quite an achievement to emerge as the third largest party barely five months after its formation. The traditional white-dominated opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, emerged as the second biggest party, polling more than 16 per cent of the votes.
The ANC, for the first time, swept the province of Kwazulu-Natal, the home province of Zuma. Until now, it was the bailiwick of Mangosuthu Buthelezi and his Inkatha Freedom Party. The ANC, however, lost the Western Cape province to its rivals. In South African elections, parties compete for seats in provincial and national legislatures on the basis of proportional representation. No individual candidates are fielded. The party which gets the most votes gets the most number of seats in parliament. Only a simple majority is needed in parliament for the President to be elected.
This years elections, the fourth since South Africa emerged from the apartheid regime, had generated a lot of heat. Zuma came under intense criticism in sections of the media for his alleged personal misdemeanours. He has sued South Africas Sunday Times newspaper for publishing a cartoon of him preparing to rape a figurative Lady Justice. The outspoken Bishop Desmond Tutu called on his fellow countrymen to vote against Zuma, saying that his presidency would be a hiccup for the country.
But former President Nelson Mandela, despite his frail health, made an appearance at an ANC rally along with Zuma a few days before the elections. Mandela said he would remain faithful to the ANC until the end and called on South Africans to endorse Zuma and the ANC.
The turnout was around 80 per cent. International observers described the election process as absolutely free and fair. Salim Ahmed Salim, the head of the African Union (A.U.) observer mission, told the media that the conduct of the elections had done honour not only to the people of South Africa but to Africa as a whole.
The man in the centre of it all was Zuma, who ousted Thabo Mbeki from the ANC leadership as well as the presidency in an acrimonious political struggle last year. People had virtually written off Zuma three years ago after he was embroiled in a serious corruption case. Mbeki, who was President at the time, had dismissed him from the post of Deputy President. And it was only three years ago that Zuma was acquitted in a rape case. Charges of corruption were also formally dropped against him two weeks before the elections. Many of his supporters were convinced that Zuma was a victim of a conspiracy hatched by Mbeki to deprive him of his rightful claim to the presidency.
Zuma, a self-taught man who fought the apartheid regime from inside South Africa and spent 10 years in prison in Robben Island along with Mandela and other ANC stalwarts, turned out to be a tenacious political fighter. He was the head of the ANCs internal security wing during the struggle against apartheid.
In the April elections, Zuma and the ANC ran a populist campaign, promising more jobs and a secure safety net. The unemployment rate in the country is estimated at around 40 per cent. He made education and housing the centrepiece of his campaign. Zuma promised that in the first five years of his presidency, 60 per cent of the schools would become non-fee paying ones. The ANC manifesto says that under the Zuma presidency, South Africa will be liberated from illiteracy.
The ANC government was unable to get a grip on the problems relating to poverty, unemployment and the AIDS epidemic despite South Africa having the strongest economy in the African continent. AIDS claimed more than 330,000 lives in the country between 2000 and 2005. The number of families needing housing rose by 2.4 million. This means that the new government has to double the rate of house-building activities. Under ANC leadership, 2.7 million subsidised houses have been built. Most of the people have access to potable water, and three quarters of the people have access to electricity and sanitation.
In his successful leadership quest, Zuma identified himself with the radical wing of the ANC that is aligned to the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the countrys trade union movement, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). In his early political career, Zuma was briefly a member of the SACP.
Both the SACP and Cosatu were bitter with Mbekis International Monetary Fund (IMF)/World Bank-influenced policies. In Zuma we see ourselves, we see humility. We see somebody we can speak to, who has genuine love for the people, said Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu general secretary.
Zuma is also indebted to former ANC members who became rich under the black empowerment programme in the last 15 years after the end of apartheid. They no doubt want Zuma to continue with the pro-market policies of his predecessors.
The impoverished masses are looking at Zuma as a redeemer. The SACP and the ANC have called on Zuma to roll back the conservative economic policies implemented during the Mbeki period. They want the state to use its financial institutions in a bigger way to combat poverty and bring down the high rates of unemployment. The commodity-based economy of South Africa has been badly hit by the global meltdown. The markets for South Africas minerals have collapsed.
After the results were out, Zuma was careful to stress that his immediate priority was to see that there were no more job losses. Global recession continues to cast a long shadow on South Africa. The poll promise of creating more jobs may have to wait. Zumas radical support base, especially those belonging to the ANCs youth wing, which was key to his political resurgence, naturally expects Zuma to live up to his pre-poll promises.
The disparity between the rich and the poor is only widening in South Africa. A recent poll showed that a sizable section of the populace thought that it was actually better off economically under apartheid. The white minority still has its wealth and advantages.
Robert Mugabes land reforms in neighbouring Zimbabwe may have come in for criticism in Western capitals, but the rank and file of the ANC are beginning to ask why such land reforms are not being carried out in South Africa. White landowners still continue to hold on to the best swathes of agricultural land.
Zuma is expected to continue with his predecessors policy on Zimbabwe. South Africa has played a crucial role in ensuring that the power-sharing deal in Zimbabwe between Mugabe and the opposition continues and that political stability returns to that country. Zuma has made it clear on many occasions that there will be continuity in South Africas policy vis-a-vis Zimbabwe. South Africa does not want outside powers, especially former colonial powers, to meddle in the region.
South Africa has been playing the leading peace-keeping role in the African continent. Zuma himself was instrumental in defusing the crisis in Burundi where the Tutsis and the Hutus were fighting a bitter civil war.
Under Zumas leadership, South Africa will no doubt continue to play a leading role in forums such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the A.U. Last year, he made a couple of visits to New Delhi to apprise the Indian government and the Congress party of the developments in his country and the region.