Voters go to polls tomorrow to pick Mandela's successor

Likely victor, Mbeki, faces unmet demands of poor black majority

June 01, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Five years ago, most South Africans went to the polls euphoric and full of hope in the first election that allowed people of all races to cast their ballots, and they overwhelmingly elected Nelson Mandela to lead them.

Tomorrow, they will go to the polls to select Mandela's successor. And while no one doubts that Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, his hand-picked understudy, will win, the euphoria and the hope of five years ago have given way to some harsh realities.

Much has been done to improve the lives of the previously disadvantaged, but millions of blacks are waiting for decent homes and basic services.

The economy, the strongest in Africa, is in recession, teetering at a critical juncture between recovery that could lead to what Mbeki calls an "African renaissance" or joining the economic despair of the rest of the continent. Crime, corruption and unemployment hold social well-being hostage and foreign investment at bay.

The 18 million South Africans who have registered to vote -- 79 percent of the 22.7 million eligible voters -- face a choice of no fewer than 15 parties.

But there is no doubt that Mbeki's ruling African National Congress, which won 62.65 percent support in the first democratic ballot, will be re-elected. It retains the confidence of most voters, despite the widespread impatience for faster delivery on its promises.

The big question is whether the ANC will get the commanding two-thirds majority that eluded it last time.

This would give the ANC almost total control of parliament and sufficient votes to change the constitution if it desired. This has raised the specter, in the minds of some opposition politicians, of a virtual one-party state.

Mbeki, 56, is ANC president and has been in day-to-day charge of running the country for most of the past three years while Mandela, 80, has increasingly played the role of elder statesman -- here and around the world.

`Aggressive transformation'

During the campaign, Mbeki has called for "aggressive transformation" of society, prompting fear among the 11 percent white population of a reordering of Mandela's emphasis on racial reconciliation which left white privilege largely undisturbed.

If the first priority of black rule here was to keep the country's historic transformation peaceful, the second is to create a more equitable society.

South Africa's racial divisions are reflected in support for the major parties contesting the elections, according to a recent poll by Media & Marketing Research for Independent Newspapers.

While the ANC is regarded as a "caring" party by 73 percent of blacks, only 4 percent of whites see it as looking after their interests. The ANC and the white opposition New National Party and Democratic Party mirror conflicting black and white perceptions.

Mandela has urged whites not to sideline themselves by shunning the ANC, which he deems to be the only party able to unite the country.

"Don't make that mistake," he told a white audience during the campaign. "We destroyed white supremacy."

Two out of three voters -- mainly blacks -- expect their lives to improve under the ANC, which is running on its record of post-apartheid reform and the promise of accelerated delivery of services.

Opinion polls show whites are generally less optimistic, and are mostly backing opposition parties which accuse the government of failing to deal with crime, corruption and unemployment.

To narrow the gap between what Mbeki has termed "two nations" -- wealthy whites and impoverished blacks -- the government has introduced affirmative action legislation, opening itself to the opposition charge of promoting a new form of racism.

Jobs according to race

One such bill, the Employment Equity Act, is designed to make the employment of all but the smallest companies reflect the diversity of the 40.5 million population -- 77 percent black, 11 percent white, 9 percent of mixed race, and 3 percent Indian.

On a more symbolic level, the government has also campaigned to make the country's sports teams racially representative, pushing the approach of "merit with bias" to accelerate the selection of blacks to traditionally white national teams in such games as rugby and cricket.

One of the intriguing questions of the election is which of the two major white parties will emerge as the official opposition -- the title of the nongovernment party with the most seats in parliament.

Opposition party challenged

For the past five years that role has fallen to today's version of the National Party, which ruled during the apartheid years and was renamed the New National Party after apartheid ended. The New National Party won 20 percent of the vote in the 1994 election, against the Democratic Party's 1.7 percent.

But opinion polls indicate that the New National Party is losing support almost as fast as the Democratic Party is gaining it.

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