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Saturday, June 19, 1999 Published at 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK

World: Africa

Analysis:Thabo the conqueror

Thabo Mbeki emerges from the background as a winner

By the BBC's Africa Correspondent Jeremy Vine

He may be short on charisma, may have nothing like the pull of the remarkable Nelson Mandela; he may be diffident in public, unknown to the wider world - but this week Thabo Mbeki became a winner.

Nelson Mandela
Not just a winner. The outcome of the South African election was more like a triumph, with Mr Mbeki turned in a day from softly-spoken deputy into conqueror.

The ANC's vote is currently hovering around the symbolically important two thirds mark. Breaking through 66.7% will drive home just how spectacular this election success has been.

[ image: Nelson Mandela's aura has papered over the cracks]
Nelson Mandela's aura has papered over the cracks
Banned in the years of apartheid, then elected in this country's first democratic poll in 1994 with Nelson Mandela at its helm, the ANC has shown it retains the confidence of the 85% majority of this country - black South Africans, many of whom are still waiting, and desperately hoping, for their lives to turn around.

Official statistics say around nine million earn less than a dollar a day. On average, a black worker earns only one-tenth of the salary of the average white; black unemployment is put unofficially at 50%, and thousands live in shacks waiting for the ANC to deliver on its promise to build a million new homes.

South African Elections
Yet still the votes came in, from polling stations around the country, flashing up on a massive electronic scoreboard in Pretoria and confirming the extraordinary grip the party has on its people.

The explanations vary. Talking to ordinary black South Africans, you often pick up an almost otherworldly patience with the government - yes, they say, things are bad: "But the ANC has built some new homes, installed standpipes and power lines, maybe not where I live, but soon it will be my turn."

A bullet-proof party

Then there is the magic of Nelson Mandela. His aura, as captivating in his own country as it is in other people's, has papered over the cracks. Corruption in national and provincial government, sky-rocketing crime, and above all, the grinding poverty - they all seem to become less important when Mr Mandela is asked about them. His saintly status has bullet-proofed his party.

[ image: Tony Leon's Democratic Party have emerged from the pack as the second largest party]
Tony Leon's Democratic Party have emerged from the pack as the second largest party
The opposition has much to answer for too. Most of the ANC's rivals have failed even to try to reach out to the black population.

The Democratic Party, which has seen its vote leap from less than 2% in 1994 to nearly 10% as things stand now, chose the campaign slogan "Fight Back". The unspoken theme was it would sink its teeth into the black government on behalf of white voters.

The New National Party (descended from the old National Party, which enforced white minority rule) has fallen into a hole in the ground in this election. In 1994 it captured a fifth of the votes - now it has under 7%, so may get less than 30 seats in the 400-strong parliament. Shorn of its status as official opposition, it looks to be on the critical list, with the NNP's schoolboyish leader Martinus Van Schalkwek lampooned as "shortpants".

Two-thirds 'scaremongering'

[ image:  ]
Of course the big questions now do not relate to opposition politics, but to government. With 75% of the vote, the ANC would have been able to rewrite the South African constitution; with two-thirds, the party could change chunks of it.

It claims to have no plans to - belatedly, during the campaign, Thabo Mbeki made that clear - but the other parties have raised all kinds of worrying possibilities: that the ANC wants to dispense with judges, will water down constitutional rights to own property, shift power dramatically from provincial to national government, tamper with the independence of the Central Bank, and so on.

"It's a worst case scenario," Tony Leon, leader of the Democratic Party, told me after election day, which sounded like acknowledgement that an element of scaremongering had gone into the claims.

But there are concerns nonetheless: with so much support, the ANC can do what it likes. It will be accountable to the electors again in five years' time, but between now and then it can govern with cotton wool in its ears.

Or can it? Thabo Mbeki has promised to "accelerate change" and "end lives of poverty", pledges which sound like they need to be made accompanied by the theme tune from Mission Impossible.

The incoming president has set a high standard for himself, and the scale of the ANC's victory suggests some of its support could be flaky. The party's only fear must be that one day, with Mr Mandela gone, the patience of its long-suffering supporters finally gives out.

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