South Africans are scheduled to head to the polls on Wednesday to vote in the country’s fourth national elections since the end of apartheid. PBS WIDE ANGLE web producer Lauren Feeney spoke with Azad Essa, a political blogger for the South African newspaper The Mail and Guardian, about the significance of the upcoming elections.
For additional information, see more of WIDE ANGLE’s coverage of South Africa.
WIDE ANGLE: The ANC, or African National Congress party is expected to win elections there on Wednesday. Can you tell us what this party stands for, and how it has changed since Nelson Mandela was the party’s leader?
AZAD ESSA: The mantra of this party has always been “the people shall govern.” If anything, the party and its supporters believe that this mantra, over the past 10 years, with Thabo Mbeki as the second [post-apartheid] president, was lost. Thabo Mbeki was a suited-up politician with a foreign education. The ANC supporters believe that today, this party is back in working class control with a grassroots leader like Jacob Zuma.
WA: Jacob Zuma is the leader of the ANC and likely the next president of South Africa. But Zuma has been dogged by corruption charges that were only recently dropped. What exactly was he accused of, and does he have the trust of the South African people?
AE: Jacob Zuma is a very, very interesting character. He’s had I think something like 750 counts of corruption against him — all sorts of racketeering, and other shady deals that he’s been accused of. The most significant issue was this arms deal with a French company, a multi-million dollar arms deal, and Zuma was accused of accepting bribes, et cetera, et cetera. He was charged and as a result was pushed to resign; he lost his job as deputy president. The issue has dragged on from that time, since 2005, and has been dropped and recharged and dropped, but now it’s been dropped completely because there’s enough evidence to suggest that the entire accusation against him was motivated politically. It’s very interesting that that happened last week, one week before the elections.
The trust of the people issue is very incredible. We have three types of voter in this country at the moment: the guy who’s supporting Zuma, the guy who’s afraid of Zuma, and the person who is going to vote for the ANC despite Zuma. The Zuma supporter, I call him the Zumamaniac, doesn’t mind that Zuma might be really guilty of these corruption charges. For him, everything that’s pitched against Zuma is a political conspiracy, and Zuma and the working class cause have become synonymous with each other. At the same time, you have sort of the middle class liberal thinker in South Africa who is very much against Zuma — Zumaphobic in a way. He believes that Zuma has his charm, but until and unless we get a case and he’s tried in a court of law and found not guilty, I’m not going to trust this guy, and we’re only really going to get somewhere in this country if we stem corruption from the start. And then, as I say, there’s the third guy who says, I’m supporting the ANC because of the history that it brings, and what the ANC stands for in the first place.
WA: Who’s the opposition in this race?
AE: The Democratic Alliance headed by Capetown mayor Helen Zille is the main opposition. Now, the Democratic Alliance is still majority-white; it still represents white interests, or is perceived to represent white interests. Nonetheless, over the past 2, 3 years it has emerged in leaps and bounds and has tried to rebrand itself as a truly South African party. The thing with the Democratic Alliance is that it’s a pro-capital party, and its campaigning has been with that focus — it’s striving to reduce labor laws to some extent, and it’s trying to attract foreign investment, and this is not going down very well with most people in the country. So it’s a very strange campaign, because while it’s trying to attract all, most South Africans are still very strongly allied with trade unions, so the D.A. looses a lot of possible membership because of that.
But what’s interesting about this election is the advent of the new opposition, and that’s the Congress of People Party or COPE. What happened after liberation when the country became a democracy is that obviously there were going to be very different ideas about how the country should be governed, but these difference have never come to the fore as they have today, and this has lead to the split of the ANC and the creation of the Congress of the People Party.
COPE is made up of all the guys within the ANC who have problems with Zuma’s presidency. COPE just emerged recently, and so it’s unclear what they stand for. So if you’re not supporting the ANC, you have a problem regarding who to support, because it’s not necessarily that these guys promote or offer anything much better, they just promise a future without Zuma. In the D.A. election campaign, you see posters out on the street saying “Stop Zuma. Vote for the D.A.” So this kind of demonizing of Jacob Zuma is almost the basis of both election campaigns.
WA: The results of this election seem to be a foregone conclusion — everyone is expecting Jacob Zuma and the ANC to win — but nonetheless, people are calling it one of the most important elections in South African history. Why is this election so important?
AE: I think the first thing is that there’s been a surge in the amount of people taking part in this election, so we’re looking at 23 million people out of a total population of around 50 million that are going to be voting, so that’s an incredible achievement, and that has also come from, believe it or not, this Obama sort of mania, where people believe “we’ve got to take part to change things.”
Probably the most significant thing is the tears within the ANC. It’s a very fascinating and very important time in South African politics because people are wondering, is this the election that showcases the beginning of a real opposition in this country? Because until now there has been no real opposition, I mean, in 2004, the ANC won 69 percent of the vote. With the advent of COPE, and with the D.A. gaining because of people not wanting to vote for Zuma, people are wondering if it’s going to be less than 60 percent for the ANC, so maybe in the next election in 2014, maybe there will be a real opposition by that time.
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