Courtesy Reuters

Letter From Johannesburg: The ANC’s Party Crashers

The Future of South African Opposition Politics

Since 1994, when apartheid in South Africa came to an end and voters of all colors chose Nelson Mandela as president, the international press has treated election time in South Africa like a piece of feel-good theater. Every five years, the ruling African National Congress would beat the “we won liberation for our people” drum to attract voters. And it worked, with almost 70 percent of the electorate consistently supporting the ANC, the party of liberation.

But 2009 will be different. This election year, the main actors may be the same, but their roles have changed dramatically. The last time South Africa had national elections, in 2004, Thabo Mbeki was president and the leader of the country’s ruling party, the ANC. His deputy was a semiliterate man from rural KwaZulu-Natal, Jacob Zuma, who was so close to Mbeki that some referred to them as “spit and saliva.” Their relationship deteriorated in 2005, when Zuma’s financial backer and adviser, Schabir Shaik, was found guilty of corruption. Although Zuma was clearly implicated in the crime, prosecutors did not bring charges against him. In the midst of all this drama, Zuma was accused, and later acquitted, of raping a young HIV-positive woman in his Johannesburg home.

Mbeki fired Zuma as a result of the Schaik judgment and set in motion an unlikely set of events that would end with Zuma ousting Mbeki as party leader and the ANC replacing Mbeki as national president in 2008, six months before he was due to step down.

This rift has given birth to a black opposition party for the first time in South Africa’s brief post-apartheid history. Although there have always been opposition parties in South Africa, they have never been significant political forces. Since 1994, a smattering of fringe parties have made appearances in parliament -- chiefly the Democratic Alliance, which has consistently attacked the ANC on everything from affirmative action to AIDS policy. However, the DA never managed to attract large numbers of black voters and transform itself into

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