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South Africa's extraordinary, ordinary elections

Analysis: Campaign is full of bitter rhetoric, but appears fair and without violence.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Jacob Zuma, the man who will in all likelihood be elected South Africa’s next president, has been accused of corruption and rape.

Helen Zille, the white mayor of Cape Town and head of one of the main opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance, has been called a racist and a colonialist — although these charges are widely seen as unfounded.

The other main opposition party, the Congress of the People (Cope)  — which made history it broke away from the African National Congress last year — seems more interested in internal wrangling than in mounting a serious campaign to be the election spoiler.

The good news is that the run-up to South Africa's national elections looks and sounds a lot like routine politics in the western world, full of venom and vituperation, and less like the brutal and bogus polls held by many other developing nations. After the bloodshed and chaos of recent elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe, for example, South Africa’s exercise in democracy is cause for celebration.

When upwards of 23 million South Africans cast their votes on April 22nd, it will mark the fourth time the country has held free elections since the end of white minority rule in 1994. That these elections are expected to be generally peaceful and reflective of the will of the people is an accomplishment whose importance cannot be overstated.

Somehow, in less than a generation, a country that was once the world’s pariah has transformed itself from dictatorship to democracy. Equally impressive is that fact that many citizens now view the right to vote as an ordinary almost banal fact of political life.

But these elections are extraordinary as well, because how South Africa deals with its many daunting challenges has implications far beyond its borders. With a population of nearly 50 million, the continent’s biggest economy, most impressive infrastructure, and a global moral authority embodied by the country’s first black President Nelson Mandela, South Africa is the continent’s giant.

The first priority for the next president, which virtually all surveys show will be Jacob Zuma, will be to make progress in meeting the expectations of the underserved black majority while avoiding unduly alienating the influential white business establishment.

Maintaining a balance between the needs of a Third World population and a First World economy is very nearly impossible, but insofar as the past two administrations have had any success, it’s been largely due to the skills of the longtime Finance Minister Trevor Manuel. Given the world financial slump, which is hitting South Africa hard, his talents will be critical to Zuma's new government as it looks to generate employment, address housing shortages, and help an ailing educational system produce graduates who can contribute to the economy.

With some of the world’s highest rates of murder and sexual violence, as well as serious problems with drug smuggling, human trafficking, and corruption, crime is much on the minds of all South Africans. More than just a personal security issue, getting a grip on criminality is crucial to maintaining and attracting investors. Crime is also one of the main drivers of emigration, resulting in a brain drain of thousands of skilled young people each year.