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Tuesday, 5 December, 2000, 12:10 GMT
The ANC's acid test
Motorcyclist examines ANC posters
The electorate is taking a long hard look at the ANC's record
By News Online's Justin Pearce

Tuesday's municipal elections in South Africa are the second local polls since the end of apartheid - but they take place in a markedly different political atmosphere from the 1995 council elections.

Nelson Mandela, the president and party leader who often appeared to be above politics, is no longer in power.

It is Aids which has mobilised an unprecedented level of public protest againt the ANC government in the past year

Two opposition parties have joined forces in an alliance which seems set to pose the biggest electoral challenge yet seen by the ANC.

And after six years of ANC government, many South Africans are starting to feel disillusioned. Poverty is still widespread, crime still rampant, and Aids on the rise.

Unprecedented threat

Local elections the world over are a chance for voters to deliver a protest vote to the party that runs the country, and South Africa is no exception.

DA battle bus
The Democratic Alliance is targetting poor and black voters
All polls show the ANC still well ahead, but with markedly less than the 66% of the vote which it gained in last year's national elections.

Up to now, the ANC has been almost assured of the vote of the black African majority everywhere except in rural KwaZulu-Natal, where the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party still holds sway.

Now that seems to be changing, with the biggest challenge coming from the Democratic Alliance: a marriage of convenience between the New National Party - successor to the National Party which implemented apartheid - and the Democratic Party, the white-dominated liberal party which once opposed the National Party in the old racially-exclusive parliament.

The rhetoric speaks of an ANC losing its liberation-movement gloss, and being forced onto the back foot like a ruling party anywhere in the world

Opinion polls suggest a neck-and-neck battle between the ANC and the DA in Pretoria, the capital, and in the country's three largest cities: Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.

Some are predicting that the result of the elections will be determined by which party manages to moblise the most supporters to go and vote.

Cape Town, with its coloured majority population is a special case. It lies in a province whose government is DA-controlled, and for the ANC to take the city would mean gaining a foothold in the province which since 1994 has been most often at odds with the central government.

The ANC is likely to retain control of its traditionally loyal rural areas outside of KwaZulu-Natal, as well as in the strongly ANC cities in the Eastern Cape and in the Vaal Triangle area south of Johannesburg.

Poverty trap

Opposition campaigners have focussed on crime, corruption, poverty and Aids.

Most South Africans remain poor. The huge poverty-alleviation programme which the ANC promised before the 1994 elections had to be abandoned within two years because of macroeconomic concerns, and the country still has a huge housing backlog and large-scale unemployment.

Thabo Mbeki
Mbeki faces the first serious test of his presidency
One of the areas where the ANC government has made the biggest difference is in the provision of basic services like running water and electricity to communities which previously relied on buckets and paraffin.

The continued provision - and expansion - of such services will be in the gift of the party that wins in a particular area - something which could provide useful campaign fodder at the next election.

Crime remains as much a concern as ever.

Aids achilles heel

But it is Aids which has mobilised an unprecedented level of public protest againt the ANC government in the past year, and some analysts are citing this a reason for the swing of support away from the ruling party

The DA-controlled provincial government in the Western Cape has already tried to play the Aids card, talking of making anti-retroviral drugs available to certain patients at state hospitals in defiance of central government policy.

Former president Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela's popularity has been used as a campaign tool
Thabo Mbeki was effectively in charge of the country for several years before he became president in 1999, so it would be wrong to see his presidency as signalling any real shift in government policy - his maverick views on Aids and HIV notwithstanding.

But Mbeki the technocrat cannot hope to match either Mandela's charm or his moral authority. A few years ago, a vote for the ANC meant a vote for the man who was the most potent symbol of South Africa's liberation.

It was no surprise to see Mr Mandela making a rare return to party politics, addressing ANC campaign rallies.

Both he and Mr Mbeki focussed in their speeches on the tainted history and racial make-up of the DA.

"Where were they when Nelson Mandela was in jail for 27 years?" the president asked at a campaign rally in Khayelitsha.

At another rally, Mr Mandela referred to the DA's township candidates as "black stooges" for a white-dominated party.

The rhetoric speaks of an ANC losing its liberation-movement gloss, and being forced onto the back foot like a ruling party anywhere in the world.

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