Zuma rocks out as votes are counted

JOHANNESBURG — The African National Congress — the party that ended apartheid and has ruled South Africa for the past 15 years — is heading for another landslide victory in the country’s fourth democratic elections.

With about half the ballots counted, the party of Nelson Mandela is leading with more than 66 percent of the votes counted. The results demonstrate that the ANC’s enormous appeal among the country’s black majority has not been affected by the deep internal rift that led to the forced resignation of former President Thabo Mbeki and the formation of a breakaway party last year.

As the party’s leader, Jacob Zuma will become South Africa’s fourth black president when he is sworn in May 9 in Pretoria. The date will mark the completion of an extraordinary political comeback for Zuma, who was fired by Mbeki in 2005 and then weathered corruption and rape charges. He was acquitted of rape charges and the corruptions charges were dropped.

At a rally outside the ANC’s headquarters in downtown Johannesburg on Thursday night, Zuma struck a slightly vindictive tone, saying rival parties, political analysts and the media had all erred in predicting that the ANC’s influence and majority in Parliament would diminish as a result of the election.

“There is one point they all agreed on: that the African National Congress will win this election,” Zuma told thousands of cheering supporters. “Already, as the counting is going on I am told millions have voted for the ANC.”

Zuma stopped short of declaring outright victory, only saying that the ANC has “done very well.” But there was little doubt the mood was celebratory. Sporting a red polo shirt and a black-and-yellow ANC leather jacket, Zuma joined the numerous dance groups on stage, displaying a litheness that would be the envy of most other 67-year-olds.

The ANC insisted this was not a victory celebration yet, but with the explosion of gold and green confetti, fireworks and the three oversized champagne bottles switching hands among ANC dignitaries, one easily could have been fooled. Even Zuma, who never drinks, had a cup. A true victory party is planned for Friday.

As of late Thursday, the ANC was leading the vote with 66.7 percent. The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, was second with about 16 percent. The Congress of the People, a party formed by ANC dissidents in the wake of Mbeki’s departure, was third with 8 percent of the vote. Expatriate South Africans were allowed to vote for the first time this year, and the DA received about 75 percent of votes cast overseas.

Only 8.4 million of the ballots have been counted. The final turnout of Wednesday's poll is still unknown, but election officials predict that 80 percent of the record 23.2 million registered voters cast their ballots. By law, the Independent Electoral Commission has one week to deliver the final results, but they could come as early as Friday.

Many votes remain to be counted, but the ANC hopes to equal its performance in the 2004 elections, when it secured 69.7 percent of the vote. A majority of at least two-thirds in parliament guarantees that bills are easily passed and allows the ANC to amend the Constitution.

Many voters had expressed their desire for a stronger opposition, but it looks as if the opposition’s collective performance is about the same as in past elections. However, it is now concentrated in the hands of fewer parties. The DA, led by Cape Town mayor Helen Zille, looks to improve on its score of 12 percent in 2004. The party also appears set to wrestle the Western Cape province away from the ANC. Over the past five years, the ANC has controlled all of the country’s nine provinces.

One party that did not live up to expectations is Cope. Formed four months ago by discontented ANC members, the fledgling party’s campaign was plagued by internal bickering and poor management. It also took a gamble in picking a virtual unknown as its presidential candidate.

Richardt Venter, a 30-year-old architect from the trendy Johannesburg neighborhood of Greenside, said he had contemplated voting for Cope but decided to vote for the DA. “It’s familiar,” he said. Plus, he knew little about Cope’s policies and leadership.

“I think they deserve a fighting chance,” Venter said. “But I think at this stage I’m not comfortable enough yet.”

The ANC, in contrast, is a well-known brand, and many among the country’s black population say they would never consider voting for another party than the one that brought them the right to vote in the first place.

On one hand, expectations are high that Zuma, who grew up herding goats and taught himself to read, will do more than previous governments to improve basic services and provide jobs.

On the other hand, some investors are nervous that Zuma, who has the backing of trade unions and the South African Communist Party, will abandon the economic policies that have paved the way for several years of sustained growth. The looming financial crisis almost guarantees that Zuma will stick with the status quo.

“The government will not be able to meddle with anything because it will be too nervous about upsetting things,” said political analyst Allister Sparks before the elections.

More GlobalPost dispatches on South Africa:

Cartoonist lampoons South Africa's politicians 

ANC's 15-year record is mixed 

Why young politicos matter in South Africa