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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 January, 2004, 21:50 GMT
Eyewitness: Mbeki launches campaign

Barnaby Phillips
BBC Africa correspondent in Pietermaritzburg

South African President Thabo Mbeki has launched the African National Congress' re-election campaign in a speech to thousands of supporters in Pietermaritzburg.

The date of the elections has not yet been announced, but it's widely expected they will be in March or April.

Thabo Mbeki
Mbeki called for peaceful elections

Sunday was a baking hot day in the province of KwaZulu Natal.

ANC supporters - dressed in party colours of black, yellow and green - crowded into a stadium as young music stars performed on stage.

Then President Mbeki arrived and spoke of the ANC's achievements in office.

"We rescued an economy in a situation of disaster," he said.

"That economy today is strong and growing. We inherited a country in which millions of the poor were in despair.. we've changed that situation."

These elections coincide with the 10th anniversary of the end of apartheid, and South Africans of all races are taking stock of how their country has changed.

ANC supporters from the black majority say their lives have improved.

"Extension of clean running water to nine million people is no mean job," one person told me.

"I will vote ANC," said another. "When they took over, everything changed. In Johannesburg there were many squatters camp, now there are houses."

I asked him whether he wasn't worried that Thabo Mbeki hadn't mentioned Aids in his speech.

"Basically he did not address the issue," the man agreed, "but I guess he will attend to it later. He must, as the leader of our country, because most of our youth is dying of Aids."

Victory margin

As well as Aids, opposition parties will talk about unemployment and crime.

Crowds at Pietermaritzburg rally
The crowds were ready to back Mbeki for another term
But they will struggle to make headway, the only real doubt is the margin of the ANC's victory.

In KwaZulu Natal the election will be closely fought, as the ANC tries to overtake the Inkatha party.

President Mbeki appealed for peaceful elections in a province with a history of political violence.

"We must make sure that nobody gets intimidated, so that our people in this province are able to decide for themselves freely whom they want as the government of Kwazulu Natal," he told the crowds.

In fact most ANC supporters here say they are confident the elections will be peaceful.

And that is a measure of how far South Africa has come.

It is still a country with sharp racial divisions, but as we approach the third multi-racial elections, it is also one where the democratic process is in good health.




SEE ALSO:
Row erupts at Mbeki TV coverage
09 Jan 04  |  Africa
SA opposition coalition emerges
03 Nov 03  |  Africa
ANC gains from defections
04 Apr 03  |  Africa
Country profile: South Africa
08 Nov 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: South Africa
19 Nov 03  |  Country profiles


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