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 a genuine multiracial opposition party. Instead, it became identified as a refuge for anti-ANC whites, blacks, and “coloureds” -- broadly defined as those of mixed-race heritage -- who resented the ANC’s poor delivery of social services.

Due to the lack of a genuine, cohesive opposition, it was always clear that any political shakeup would have to come from within the ANC -- the party that sells itself as a big tent that can accommodate both communists and capitalists, feminists and polygamists, Ph.D.s and peasants. But the shakeup did not happen the way it was supposed to.

Beginning in the late 1990s, many political analysts predicted that the ANC would eventually split when the party’s left wing -- made up of trade unionists and communists -- got fed up with Mbeki’s neoliberal economic policy and seceded to form a workers’ party. Instead, the opposite occurred.

The rift within the party first appeared in June 2005, when Mbeki fired Zuma, and, in response, the party’s own rank and file revolted. Mbeki had come to the ANC’s national general council, the highest decision-making gathering between national conferences, to seek confirmation for his decision to also “relieve Zuma of his duties” as the deputy head of the party, a ceremonial political post. But the attending delegates had other plans. Under the fiery leadership of Fikile Mbalula, the ANC Youth League took up Zuma’s cause and started lobbying for his reinstatement. In April 2008, Mbalula was succeeded by the more verbose but less sophisticated Julius Malema, who coined the now-famous promise to “kill for Zuma.”

The conference grew rowdy, with youth members singing revolutionary songs and chanting slogans in defiance of the party’s old guard. Many senior party officials were left dumbstruck -- it was the first time they had seen such a rebellion from within their own ranks. For much of their lives, party discipline had been taken for granted and decisions made in backrooms had been merely presented to conferences for endorsement. Mbeki had no choice but to reinstate Zuma as the deputy president of the party but held firm that Zuma could not return as the country’s second in command.

In December 2007, the ANC met for its national conference in the dusty northern town of Polokwane. Zuma supporters, bolstered by victories at provincial party conferences, were even bolder in their resistance to the party leadership, particularly to Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota, a heavyset man with a thundering voice and fierce tongue, who was the ANC chairman and the country’s defense minister. At one especially raucous session, a delegate stunned observers when he shouted at Lekota, “Chair, you are out of order!” Two things were clear: nothing would stand in the way of Zuma becoming ANC president, and Lekota would never be respected within the ANC again.

After Polokwane, Mbeki’s allies remained ensconced in cushy jobs as ministers while the Zuma camp waited for its moment to pounce. The ANC could not hold together for long. In September 2008, Judge Chris Nicholson gave the party leadership at Luthuli House, the 11-story building in Johannesburg that serves as the ANC’s headquarters, the pretext it needed to finally kick Mbeki out. Nicholson ruled that Zuma’s legal woes -- which by then stood at 18 charges of fraud, corruption, and racketeering -- might have been the product of a campaign by Mbeki to deny him the presidency. After a marathon 14-hour meeting among party leaders, Mbeki was fired.

One week later, 11 ministers and three deputy ministers loyal to Mbeki resigned, including the highly respected finance minister Trevor Manuel. The Johannesburg Stock Exchange lost R54 billion that day ($5.4 billion) -- a firm indication that the markets had faith in Manuel and doubts about the Zuma crowd. It was only a matter of time before a new party emerged from the debris of the Mbeki administration.

The answer would come less than two months later. The Congress of the People was formed after a national convention on November 2, 2008. Lekota became COPE’s leader, and rivals immediately branded the new party “ANC Lite,” implying it was merely a group of disgruntled Mbeki supporters going it alone. Among ordinary South Africans, however, COPE’s message of hope and change -- purposefully styled on the themes of President Barack Obama’s successful 2008 campaign -- has caught on.

Although COPE has proposed only one major policy change -- changing the current proportional representation system in parliament, which would allow voters to directly elect their president, provincial premiers, and municipal mayors -- it is trying to convince voters that it occupies the moral high ground because, in contrast to Zuma, none of its leaders has been accused of rape or corruption. To drive the point home, COPE appointed Bishop Mvume Dandala, a former church minister, to be its presidential candidate.

Buppies, as black yuppies are colloquially known, and young people across the racial spectrum see COPE as a way to move beyond the stale cronyism of the ANC. Thoughtless remarks made by Malema, the ANC Youth League’s leader -- he told students in Cape Town that the woman who accused Zuma of rape “must have enjoyed herself” because she asked for breakfast and taxi fare the morning after -- have alienated a large number of more educated, professional voters.

COPE is exploiting Malema’s missteps to the fullest, but even so, it is not likely to eclipse the ANC at the polls. Surveys from the South African Institute of Race Relations show that the ANC will most likely retain its two-thirds majority in parliament.

Internal ANC polling paints a grimmer picture, however. Its latest numbers show ANC support at 52 percent, which brings it dangerously close to losing its parliamentary majority. Estimates for COPE’s performance range from five to 20 percent, with some going as high as 30 percent. There is no doubt that the ANC will remain the ruling party, but it might have to govern by coalition in several provinces. On the national level, the ANC will probably still take the majority of the seats in parliament but will not have its current two-thirds majority required to change the constitution. The ANC has spent a significant chunk of its election campaign trying to convince voters that the party has no intention to change the constitution, not even to shield its presidential candidate from prosecution.

To govern in coalition on a national level will shake the ANC to its foundations. It will force the party to take responsibility for its actions -- specifically on corruption and poor social-service delivery -- and reflect more critically on its own performance. Dishing out jobs to incompetent people who are politically well connected will no longer be an option, nor will it be as easy to remove political foes. Party leaders will have to take seriously the misdemeanors of their comrades.

In a coalition government, empty populism will not be enough to win votes, and the ruling party will suffer at the polls for making promises it cannot keep. Moreover, the line between the ANC and the South African government -- which has faded to a blur in recent years -- will be restored.

More than 23 million voters have registered for the coming elections on April 22, approximately four million more people than in the first democratic election in 1994. For South African voters, it will be their first exposure to a genuine contestation of power. The election will put pressure on the police to curb political violence and on the previously unquestioned Independent Election Commission to remain unbiased.

Regardless of whether the election’s outcome puts a large enough dent in the ANC to change the country’s political landscape, this election will lift the curtain on behind-the-scenes ANC governance and allow South Africans to see a real political drama play out for the first time since the country’s transition to democracy.

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  • MANDY ROSSOUW is Senior Political Reporter at the Mail & Guardian, a weekly newspaper in South Africa.
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