- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

JOHANNESBURG (AP) - The man widely expected to be South Africa’s next president is looking beyond Wednesday’s parliamentary elections, eager to set up a new government that he says will be responsive to the black majority’s hopes for better lives.

Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress party is expecting an overwhelming victory in the elections, which has generated an excitement not seen since the country’s first multiracial vote in 1994.

Parliament elects South Africa’s president, putting ANC leader Zuma in line for the post when the new assembly votes in May.

A record number of people _ more than 23 million _ have registered to vote and election officials are expecting a turnout of about 80 percent.

At one Soweto church being used as a polling station, officials sang and held a prayer before opening to voters.

Samuel Kekana, a 46-year-old security guard among the early risers lining up to vote in Loreno, said he was voting for the ANC. He credited the party with building schools and houses and improving education since first taking power in 1994.

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

The opposition has tried to paint the populist Zuma, a former anti-apartheid guerrilla who has survived sex and graft scandals, as corrupt and antidemocratic.

But the ANC sees the 67-year-old Zuma as its first leader since Nelson Mandela 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 create jobs and a stronger social safety net for this nation of nearly 50 million, which is plagued by poverty, unemployment and an AIDS epidemic.

John Mubbie, voting at a Soweto community hall from where both the tiny apartheid-era houses and a new, low-cost development built by the ANC government could be seen, wouldn’t say which party would get his vote. But he said the emergence of an opposition party formed by disgruntled former ANC members made this election almost as exciting as the 1994 vote.

“Opposition parties are very interested to challenge the ruling party,” said the 54-year-old Mubbie.

Speaking to reporters on the eve of the vote, 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 party leadership. Kgalema Motlanthe was appointed president of a caretaker government until Zuma can take over.

“Going forward, we reiterate that the transition to a new government will be smooth,” Zuma said, promising that a transition team was already 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.

After months of heated campaigning, Zuma also made a gesture of reconciliation, saying the new government will emphasize “openness, dialogue, as well as inclusiveness.”

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.

Mbeki supporters broke away to form their own party late last year, the Congress of the People, which was seen as a strong challenge 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 the corruption trial of a close friend and financial adviser in an arms deal bribery scandal. After a series of protracted legal battles, prosecutors dropped all charges against him earlier this month.

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 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 writer Donna Bryson contributed to this report.

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