Mandela Gives ANC's Zuma A Powerful Stamp of Approval

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 20, 2009

JOHANNESBURG, April 19 -- Pollsters and analysts predict a clean sweep for the ruling African National Congress when this nation goes to the polls on Wednesday. But just in case, the party pulled out an electoral trump card at a massive rally Sunday: Nelson Mandela.

Mandela, white-haired and feeble at 90, rolled onto the field of a rugby stadium here in a golf cart alongside ANC leader and presidential front-runner Jacob Zuma. They were greeted by the ground-shaking roars of an exuberant crowd of about 100,000.

Mandela's rare public appearance amounted to the biggest endorsement possible in South African politics, a stamp of approval given by the nation's foremost moral icon and first black president to a candidate critics consider too unethical to lead. The ANC has been tarnished by internal squabbles and a string of corruption scandals, the most notable involving Zuma himself. Prosecutors dropped graft charges against him two weeks ago.

After being helped onto a stage by his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and Zuma, Mandela sat for the duration of the rally on a black sofa, smiling gently in a yellow T-shirt stamped with Zuma's visage. He did not address the crowd, but large screens broadcast a brief video of him urging ANC supporters to focus on the "primary task" of ending poverty and ensuring better lives for all South Africans.

"The ANC has the historic responsibility to lead our nation and help build a united, nonracial society," Mandela said in the video, then repeated the party's campaign slogan: "Working together, we can do more."

Wednesday's vote will be this young democracy's most competitive yet. A new opposition party, formed by former ANC members opposed to Zuma, is expected to capture the votes of some who have grown disillusioned with a ruling party that won nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2004.

But analysts predict the new challengers will merely dent that dominance, and the biggest question now is whether the ANC will win enough votes to retain its two-thirds majority in Parliament, which enables it to easily amend the constitution.

Mandela has steered clear of commenting on party divisions or Zuma's candidacy, though he did share the stage with Zuma at a rally earlier this year. That appearance sparked controversy after a newspaper reported that the ANC had pressured Mandela and endangered him by skirting security protocol and flying him to the event without his personal physician.

The ANC denied that assertion, and on Sunday, Zuma stressed that Mandela -- whom he called a "president, father and stalwart whose loyalty to the ANC we will never doubt" -- came to both rallies of his own accord.

"We have seen excitement about the ANC that we have not witnessed since the release of Madiba and that 1994 election," said Zuma, referring to Mandela by his clan name in a lengthy speech that began and ended with Zuma dancing and singing to raucous cheers. "The movement has come alive."

Jonathan Minyuku, 26, agreed. Sitting outside the stadium as the crowd streamed out after the rally, the accounting assistant said he was sure the ANC was the only party capable of solving South Africa's problems.

Zuma "is the only great candidate for the presidency," Minyuku said, adding that he thought the corruption charges that vexed Zuma for so long were "internal politics," but nothing too dire. "People still have hope in the ANC."

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