- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

JOHANNESBURG (AP) - Voters lined up before sunrise Wednesday in an election that has generated an excitement not seen since South Africa’s first multiracial vote in 1994, and that was expected to propel Jacob Zuma to the presidency after he survived corruption and sex scandals.

Zuma says he is eager to set up a new government that will bring “visible change” to improve the lives of the country’s black majority.

His governing African National Congress is expecting an overwhelming victory in the parliamentary election. Parliament elects South Africa’s president, putting Zuma _ one of the ANC’s most popular leaders ever _ in line for the post when the new assembly votes in May.

Samuel Kekana, a 46-year-old security guard who was among the early risers lining up to vote in Soweto, said he was voting for the ANC, crediting it with building schools and houses and improving education since first taking power in 1994. Kekana said he had voted in 1994 and every election since.

“This is an opportunity for us to make our mark,” he said. “I didn’t want to miss this.”

The opposition has tried to paint the populist Zuma, a former anti-apartheid guerrilla, as corrupt and antidemocratic. But the ANC sees the 67-year-old Zuma as its first leader since Nelson Mandela who is able to connect with voters.

The governing party has been accused of moving too slowly over the last 15 years to improve the lives of South Africa’s black majority. During this campaign, the ANC has stressed its commitment to creating jobs and a stronger social safety net for this nation of nearly 50 million, which is plagued by poverty, unemployment and an AIDS epidemic.

At the primary school where Zuma was to vote later Wednesday in the rural Zulu heartland, most of the early voters would not say which party they favored _ perhaps an indication it was the Inkatha Freedom Party, a regional ANC rival with its base among his Zulu tribe.

Senzeni Zama, leaning on a walking stick and her eyes clouded by cataracts, was among the few to be frank. Wednesday may be special for Zuma, she said, “but it’s not going to be special for me because I have voted for IFP all of the elections. I believe in the power of the elephant.” The elephant is Inkatha’s emblem.

Not far from the school, election officials said ballots that had been tampered with _ marked for Inkatha _ had been found at another station. Mawethu Mosery, a spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission in KwaZulu-Natal province, said police were investigating, but that it was seen as an isolated incident that should not affect the vote.

“It’s one voting station,” Mosery said. “It was found before voting started.”

Enock Zuma, the ANC leader’s 56-year-old nephew, said the area was an Inkatha stronghold, but that he hoped it would be different this year because of his uncle. In comments that echoed the ANC campaign theme of praising the accomplishments since the end of apartheid but acknowledging much more needed to be done, the younger Zuma described life in his hilly region about 300 miles (500 kilometers) southeast of Johannesburg.

“Things are much better for young people now,” Enock Zuma said. “They get to go to school, which we didn’t. But there’s one problem. There are no jobs for them when they’re finished.”

Speaking to reporters on the eve of the vote, Jacob Zuma acknowledged that ANC supporters are expecting “faster action and visible change in their lives.”

There have been concerns that Zuma’s alliance with the Communists and the trade unions will make him veer from the market-friendly monetary policies of Mandela’s successor as president, Thabo Mbeki.

Mbeki was forced to step down last year as South Africa’s president after he was defeated by Zuma in a bitter power struggle for the ANC leadership. Kgalema Motlanthe was appointed president of a caretaker government until the election.

Zuma said Tuesday that a transition team already was at work on such issues as allotting Cabinet duties. He promised a more responsive and efficient executive.

Investors are keen to see long-standing Finance Minister Trevor Manuel stay on to lend some credibility and continuity to Zuma’s government. Zuma said Tuesday it was too early to name his Cabinet.

In the last elections in 2004, the ANC won 69.9 percent of the vote. Zuma said Tuesday he expected an overwhelming majority again, but would not name a percentage. Some speculate the ANC may have trouble reaching a two-thirds majority again.

Without it, the ANC will not be able to enact major budgetary and legislation unchallenged, or change the constitution.

Mbeki supporters broke away to form their own party late last year, the Congress of the People, which was initially seen as a strong challenger to the ANC. But it has had little time to prepare and its early promise has fizzled because of internal bickering.

That party will be competing with the main opposition, the Democratic Alliance, for second place.

Zuma was fired by Mbeki as deputy president in 2005 after he was implicated in an arms deal bribery scandal. After a series of protracted legal battles, prosecutors dropped all charges against him earlier this month, saying the case had been manipulated for political reasons and the criminal charges would never be revived. But they said they still believed they had a strong case against Zuma.

In 2006, Zuma was acquitted of raping an HIV-positive family friend. But he has been ridiculed for his testimony during the trial that he believed showering after the encounter, which he said was consensual, would protect him from AIDS.

The son of a maid, Zuma was imprisoned for 10 years on Robben Island, alongside Mandela and other heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. He later went into exile, where he headed the then banned-ANC’s intelligence activities.

___

Associated Press writers Michelle Faul in Kwanxamalala and Donna Bryson in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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