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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 April, 2004, 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK
Analysis: South Africa patient for change
By Justin Pearce
BBC News Online, Johannesburg

The question about this week's national election in South Africa is not who is going to win, but how big a margin of victory the governing African National Congress will achieve - recent estimates give the ANC 65% of the vote.
Matsidiso Madondo, who is HIV positive, with her children
South Africa has the highest number of people living with Aids

This is notwithstanding the fact that after 10 years of democracy, South Africa faces some serious problems, not all of them anticipated a decade ago.


  • The HIV infection rate is estimated around 20% of the national population - until a month ago, central government refused to provide anti-retroviral drugs, while President Thabo Mbeki questioned whether HIV was the cause of Aids.

  • Children from middle-class families are still likely to get a better education than the poor.

  • Those who make it through school are pessimistic about their prospects of getting a job.

  • Audacious car hijackings and bank heists make the news, yet it is the poor who remain most affected by violent crime.

  • The money made by the new black business class has not trickled down to benefit the majority, and the gulf between rich and poor is as wide as ever.


Yet there is no denying the progress which has been made.

  • Almost every town has acquired at least one low-cost housing development in the past 10 years.

  • Far too many shanty settlements remain, but at least the longer-established ones have now been provided with water and electrical connections.

  • The symbolic importance of liberation is not to be under-estimated, with all South Africans now enjoying equal rights as citizens.

Mass movement

How then does this picture of simultaneous success and failure translate into votes?

South African Teacher

At the heart of the debate is whether the ANC is responsible for the ills that still beset the country, or whether the advances of the last 10 years are a first step in a systematic and long-term process to rebuild the country after three centuries of white domination.

And the latter argument, which favours the ANC, is the dominant one.

No other party can match the ANC's ability to mobilise the masses - the governing party recently drew 80,000 people to an election rally in Soweto.

Its ability to do so stems from the days of resistance to apartheid, and the opposition could never hope for a crowd even a fraction of that size.

Policy failures

On the campaign trail, President Thabo Mbeki has been most warmly received in the poor rural areas of the north.

A conservative white landowning minority remains powerful there, making it that much easier for the ANC to present itself as the party of change.

Opposition parties have tailored their manifestos around what are perceived to be the government's policy failures: creating jobs, fighting crime, and combating HIV-Aids.

For example, the biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, used to combine liberal human rights policies with fiscal conservatism.

At this election, the DA supports the re-introduction of the death penalty and has promised a basic income grant to the poorest South Africans, and free anti-retroviral drugs to people with HIV.

No opposition party has come up with a convincing alternative vision for South Africa.

When South Africans complain about crime or unemployment, their dissatisfaction is more likely translate into a disillusionment with politics and politicians in general than into support for an opposition party.

And on HIV-Aids, a worrying number prefer to ignore the issue altogether.

'Battle zone'

On Wednesday, South Africans will make their mark on one ballot paper for the national parliament, and on another paper for the legislature of the province in which the vote is cast.

Opposition supporter

The national parliament and provincial legislatures respectively elect the president, and the provincial premiers; president and premiers respectively appoint the national cabinet and the provincial executive councils.

While ANC victory is a certainty at the national level, there are two provinces in the country's extreme east and extreme west where the ANC cannot be assured of an outright win.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the loyalties of the majority Zulu population have long been divided between the ANC and the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

The province is currently run by an IFP-DA coalition; both parties are committed to continuing the coalition if between them they gather more votes than the ANC.

There has been speculation that the substantial white and Indian minorities could swing the vote one way or the other.

In the Western Cape, the majority coloured population tends to regard the ANC with suspicion, and has been courted both by the New National Party and by the DA.

The NNP campaign has claimed that the party has a good working relationship with the ANC and is therefore best placed to represent the interests of coloureds and whites at government level, perhaps by forming a coalition with the ANC in the provincial government.

The ANC has shown little enthusiasm for the NNP's overtures, and believes that its strong support among black Africans in the province can carry it to victory in the Western Cape.

A low turn-out at the polls will count in the ANC's favour.

In the Western Cape as elsewhere in the country, the ANC's supporters have more faith in the political process than is the case among the potential opposition voters.

The BBC's James Robbins
"Transforming a nation is still work in progress"


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