Page last updated at 23:41 GMT, Monday, 20 April 2009 00:41 UK

Is South Africa on the cusp of change?

ANC supporters

By Peter Biles
BBC Southern Africa Correspondent

Jacob Zuma is one step away from the Union Buildings - South Africa's seat of power.

Wednesday's national and provincial elections are certain to see the African National Congress (ANC) leader become the new president of South Africa.

But this year's elections have been different.

A new opposition party, hewn from the ruling African National Congress, is challenging its dominance.

Voters in South Africa give their views on the most competitive elections since the end of apartheid

Even if it can't win this year, Cope (Congress of the People) may have altered the landscape of South African politics.

Columnist and academic Xolela Mangcu of Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University says the ANC has had to up its game since the emergence of Cope.

"They forced the ANC to go on the defensive, as was clear with the sheer volume of numbers they brought out to their final rallies on Sunday," he said.

"The ANC have turned it around and re-energised themselves."

Zuma's ups and downs

Mr Zuma's life has always been a rollercoaster ride.

My first encounter with him was in Tanzania in 1987, during his years in exile.

Thabo Mbeki [l] and Jacob Zuma [r] in 1999
Thabo Mbeki (l) and Jacob Zuma (r) were once inseperable

At that time, Mr Zuma and Thabo Mbeki (then the ANC's Director of Information) appeared inseparable as ANC colleagues.

Mr Zuma subsequently became Chief of Intelligence for the ANC, but always seemed destined to remain in Mr Mbeki's shadow.

In 1999, at the start of his first administration, President Mbeki appointed Mr Zuma as his deputy.

However, in 2005, he was fired and later charged with corruption.

In the same year, he was accused of rape, but acquitted.

Nonetheless, many observers predicted that Mr Zuma would not be able to rebuild his political career.

Against the odds, and with the backing of powerful allies within the ANC, Mr Zuma staged a remarkable comeback.

Missing man

Mr Mbeki, in contrast, has gone missing from this 2009 election campaign.

23m registered voters
19,700 polling stations
9,130 candidates - 3,511 female
2,000 soldiers deployed
4,000 local observers, 153 from abroad

Since being forced by the ANC to resign as president in September 2008, little has been seen of him, except in his capacity as the chief mediator in Zimbabwe.

He has not thrown his weight behind the ANC election campaign.

Nor has he come out in support of Cope, whose core backing comes from many of Mr Mbeki's former supporters.

Issues not personalities

Politicians like to pretend that elections are about issues rather than personalities.

ECONOMY: Unemployment - 22%; 34% live on less than $2 a day
CRIME: More than 50 murders, 35 carjackings and 150 rapes a day
HEALTH:HIV affects up to 5.7m people; nearly 1,000 a day die of Aids-related illnesses

But even in South Africa, where there are no direct elections for president, this campaign has been dominated by the familiar faces on the political landscape.

Jacob Zuma's portrait has been on election posters in every main street in the country.

In a sophisticated and expensive campaign, the ANC has ensured that Mr Zuma has enjoyed maximum exposure.

In recent months, he has been to all corners of South Africa, sometimes speaking at three or four events a day.

In spite of just having turned 67, Mr Zuma remains as energetic as ever.

He has swept into the final phase of this campaign with gusto, always delighting his supporters by singing the song that he has made his own -"Mshini Wami" (Bring Me My Machine Gun).

'Stop Zuma'

Not to be outdone, Helen Zille, the leader of the parliamentary opposition - the Democratic Alliance - has also adopted a song and dance routine.

Helen Zille
Not to be outdone, Helen Zille has danced through the campaign

Ms Zille, who is Mayor of Cape Town, is contesting the position of provincial premier of the Western Cape.

The DA has been mounting a concerted effort to stop the ANC from once again securing a two-thirds majority, as it did in the 2004 elections.

Many say the real competition is between Cope and the DA to see which will become the biggest opposition.

They would have the upper hand in any coalition that might be negotiated between the two.

"I'm not sleeping long enough at night to recharge my mobile phone", said a visibly tired Ms Zille, as she visited the Red Cross Children's Hospital in Cape Town.

End of campaigning

Another leader who will welcome the end of campaigning is Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party.

At the age of 80, he is the only high profile political figure who has fought every election since 1994.

Both the Democratic Alliance and the Congress of the People are set to win about 15% of the national vote, according to the latest opinion poll by Plus 94.

If Cope performs badly, questions will no doubt be asked about why the party chose to put forward a relatively unknown figure, Bishop Mvume Dandala, as its presidential candidate, instead of one of its two founder members - Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa.

South Africans will breathe a sigh of relief after the elections this week.

They will however, have to wait a while longer to find out just what kind of president Jacob Zuma will be.

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