The ANC juggernaut

April 16, 2004|By Seamus Martin

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- To achieve nearly 70 percent of the vote in a turnout of more than three-fourths of the electorate is an extraordinary mandate for any political party, but that's precisely what the African National Congress (ANC) is about to do.

Final returns will not be available until later today, but results so far indicate one of the most comprehensive victories ever attained in a democratic election. The lack of an effective opposition has raised concerns about the health of the democracy.

The massive vote recorded by the ANC was built on a huge effort by its 400,000 members, who fought an extremely professional and exhaustive campaign. It was also due, in part, to a fragmented opposition that failed to capture the electorate's imagination.

President Thabo Mbeki will enter his second term with more than the two-thirds majority in Parliament that's necessary to change the country's constitution, a political bonus he shares with Russia's President Vladimir V. Putin. Both men have said they do not intend to meddle with the fundamental laws of their countries, and both will be watched carefully in this regard.

The South African vote, according to Patrick Laurence of the independent Helen Suzman Foundation in Johannesburg, has been "substantially free and fair." There were, he said, some isolated instances of attempted fraud and intimidation, but nothing that could have affected the result.

The ANC has been in power for 10 years, preceded by nearly 50 years of apartheid, one of the most evil and oppressive political philosophies to emerge since World War II. South Africa's black majority was not even considered worthy of inclusion in the national census in those years. It was denied the right to vote, excluded from citizenship. Freedom of movement was severely restricted by an internal passport system, and education beyond the basic minimum was denied.

All of this was overturned by the ANC under the leadership of the country's first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. Under these circumstances, despite the economic and social deprivation still endured by the majority, it is hardly surprising that voter loyalty to the ANC remains as strong as it is.

Mr. Mandela retains an immense influence in the ANC and in South Africa. It was his criticism more than anything else that moved Mr. Mbeki away from an eccentric policy on AIDS and pressured the government, finally, to provide free anti-retroviral drugs to impoverished sufferers.

The extent of the ANC's victory and the absence of an opposition party strong enough to challenge for power, not surprisingly, have raised concerns about the future of South Africa's democracy. The vote has guaranteed the ANC 15 successive years in power, but in Mr. Laurence's view, this is not in itself a threat to democracy.

"Everything depends on how the ANC uses its power in future," he said. "If it does so arrogantly, democracy may be endangered."

Worries about the future are shared not only by opposition politicians and independent analysts but also by ordinary people.

Fritz Schoon, a 22-year-old law student at the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, believes his country quickly needs a credible opposition. His parents were prominent white members of the ANC. His mother, Jeanette Schoon, and his 5-year-old sister, Katryn, were killed in 1985 when the apartheid regime's security services sent a parcel bomb in the mail to their home in Lubango, Angola, where they were in enforced exile.

The Democratic Alliance, which will finish second in this election, struggles to rid itself of its image as a party of the white community, and it appears as if it will get only 15 percent of the vote. Support for the Inkatha Freedom Party, in third place with a little more than 5 percent, is limited mostly to rural Zulus.

"If the ANC wins again in 2009, then it will be heading for 20 years in power. This could lead to a totalitarian dictatorship," Mr. Schoon said. "It may be up to people of my generation to form an effective opposition in the future."

The overweening loyalty that permeates the ANC organization needs to be discarded, he said. "We need to look at where we are going to rather than where we are coming from."

Many black South Africans are more patient. They see the slow progress in combating the AIDS pandemic and extremely high unemployment as part of a gradual process that eventually will lead to success. Others are disappointed and angry at the government's performance and perceive the ANC's neo-liberal economic program as a sellout to big business interests that made their fortunes from apartheid.

The New National Party, successor to the architects of apartheid, significantly has been the big loser in this election, gaining less than 2 percent of the vote.

Seamus Martin is a former South Africa correspondent and international editor of The Irish Times.

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