Voice of Opposition Is Muted in South African Politics

By Robyn Dixon
(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times

SOWETO, South Africa -- Christopher Sadiki is convinced that Jacob Zuma, the president-in-waiting for the ruling African National Congress, is guilty of corruption. But that won't stop the 21-year-old from choosing the ANC when he votes for the first time next week.

"Corruption is everywhere," he said, shrugging. "They're all corrupt."

And don't ask him about the opposition -- he doesn't want to know.

"I don't support them. I don't know anything about them. I don't even want to know about them," said Sadiki, who lives in a $2-a-week shack in one of Soweto's shantytowns.

Fifteen years after South Africa's first democratic elections, the ANC is predicted to win yet again with a large majority in Wednesday's general election, catapulting Zuma into the presidency weeks after corruption charges related to a multibillion-dollar arms deal were dropped.

Opposition parties have managed to attract a sliver of support among whites and the rising black middle class -- but the election poses the question of whether they will ever attract the solid support among poor unemployed blacks that would be needed to challenge ANC dominance.

Of the galaxy of opposition parties, only three are expected to attract more than 2 percent of the vote each, said a recent poll by the Ipsos-Markinor research company.

"The biggest problem is that Africa has always had very dominant ruling parties," analyst William Gumede said.

He said the opposition parties appealed mainly to better-off South Africans, worried about issues such as crime and corruption.

"It seems Zuma and the ANC don't care what the thinking classes think because the thinking classes won't bring the votes in," he said.

The Ipsos-Markinor poll suggested that the ANC, which first came to power in 1994 under Nelson Mandela, will win about 65 percent of the vote.

A breakaway party of ANC dissidents, the Congress of the People, or COPE, launched after former President Thabo Mbeki was deposed in September, seemed to offer the possibility of a viable alternative to the ANC. But it has flopped organizationally and is predicted to gain only 8 percent or 9 percent of the vote, the poll said.

The opposition Democratic Alliance, led by a white woman, Helen Zille, won just over 12 percent in the last election and is predicted to win about 11 percent.

In the sprawling black townships and shantytowns, people such as Sadiki talk about the lack of jobs and services, but the opposition has failed to capitalize on the problems, Gumede said.

"I think the reason this election was so important was that the opposition had a chance to do something, but they failed dismally," he said. "The political space opened up with people leaving the ANC, but they still needed to work hard, which they haven't done."

Davidson, a spokesman for the Democratic Alliance, said voting patterns in South Africa have revolved around race since the first free vote 15 years ago.

"COPE has now opened up those opportunities in the sense that people feel safe voting outside the ANC," he said. "It's an offshoot of the ANC, so they're not voting against their identity."

Davidson predicted that his party and others in the opposition would form an alliance after the election that eventually would be capable of challenging ANC dominance.

"It's our hope to work closely with them to be able to be in a position together to challenge for power in 2014," he said. "Sixty percent is a large number, but we believe the ANC is falling apart so quickly."

Party standard-bearer Zille, whose campaign has targeted some ANC strongholds, warns that South Africa risks becoming a failed state if the ANC's dominance continues.

Opponents in the ANC call her racist and colonialist. Despite the Democratic Alliance's efforts to recruit quality black candidates, some black voters fear that voting for Zille would mean a return to apartheid.

The Soweto shantytown where Sadiki grew up has always voted overwhelmingly ANC and probably will this time around.

But when he condemned all opposition politicians as corrupt, a quiet voice interrupted. A slight 18-year-old schoolgirl, Numfundo Mlotshwa, also voting for the first time, contradicted him.

"Helen Zille is not corrupt. I think Helen Zille would be the best president for South Africa," said Mlotshwa, chin jutting defiantly, as the young unemployed men, sitting in the sun, gawked at her in surprise.

The polls suggest she's part of a small minority. But Davidson contends that if COPE wins even 8 percent, it will pave the way for other opposition parties.

"What is important is that they have opened up the political space because more and more people are dissatisfied with the ANC. As Helen would say, it's very difficult for people to cross from one bank of the river to the other. They sometimes need pebbles to help them across."

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