24. April 2009

South Africa celebrates as Zuma, ANC lead poll

JOHANNESBURG - Thousands of ANC supporters celebrated with Jacob Zuma in Johannesburg when the ruling party took a commanding lead in an election that seemed certain to make him president.
Zuma, who danced and sang his trademark "Bring me my machine gun" anti-apartheid anthem, stressed the African National Congress was "not yet celebrating victory", although with some 60 percent of votes counted, it was set for a resounding win.
"This party is an elephant. You cannot actually topple an elephant," Zuma told a sea of cheering supporters clad in the party colours of yellow, green and black at ANC headquarters in central Johannesburg on Thursday.
The ANC had 67.06 percent, according to the latest results, hovering around the two-thirds majority that allows it to change the constitution -- a scenario that has unnerved markets even though the party has stressed it will not abuse the right.
"You don't need two-thirds to govern a country. You need political will to do so," ANC spokeswoman Jessie Duarte said.
Zuma, a polygamist who taught himself to read, portrays himself as a champion of the poor, and for many voters the ANC's credentials from the fight against white minority rule still outweigh its failure to tackle crime, poverty and AIDS.
The ANC had faced a reinvigorated opposition which had hoped to at least curb its majority to below two-thirds in Wednesday's election, compared with almost 70 percent in 2004.
But the Congress of the People (COPE) party, formed by ANC dissidents with the aim of posing the first real challenge since the end of apartheid in 1994, won 7.66 percent of votes counted.
The ANC's closest rival was the Democratic Alliance -- led by a white woman -- with 15.82 percent. The DA pulled ahead of the ANC in the Western Cape province -- South Africa's premier tourist destination, which is currently controlled by the ANC.
"We've got to realign politics in South Africa and that's what I'm going to spend the next five years doing," DA leader Helen Zille said.
ZUMA VICTORY The final result is not expected before later on Friday but there is little doubt the 67-year-old Zuma will become president only three weeks after managing to get prosecutors to drop an eight-year-old corruption case that had tainted his reputation.
Supporters in Johannesburg whooped and blared horns as Zuma, dressed in a red polo shirt and leather jacket, used a speech peppered with his native Zulu to play up the party's grassroots links and capitalise on his populist appeal.
"I'm here to celebrate. We won the election fair and square. It was my first time to vote and I'm very excited," said Veronica Moleme, as some supporters carried fake coffins bearing the pictures of opposition leaders.
Some foreign investors are less enthusiastic about Zuma, and he will need to reassure those who fear trade union allies will push him to the left at a time the continent's biggest economy could already be in recession for the first time in 17 years.
"One of the biggest challenges facing the ANC will be that posed by the global recession," said Steven Friedman, Director at the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
"In order to deal with the impact of the recession they will have to be a more effective government than the ANC has been in the past."
The rand firmed slightly early on Thursday after the smooth election, but later gave up the gains.
Zuma has repeatedly said there will be no nasty surprises in store for investors and his room for policy manoeuvre is limited because of the global downturn. Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, a market favourite, is expected to stay for now.
Zuma has also pledged to tackle rampant violent crime which could mar next year's hosting of the soccer World Cup.
Election officials estimated the turnout at 76 percent, the same as 2004. Police said the election was largely peaceful, although COPE said one of its officials was shot dead in what it believed to be a political killing. (reuters)

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