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Predicted ANC Win Has Some Asking: Is South Africa Becoming a One-Party State?

Ruling party leader Jacob Zuma is expected to clinch the nation's presidency on April 22, 2009, but the African National Congress faces its greatest challenge since apartheid ended in 1994.

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By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

THEMBELIHLE, South Africa -- Fifteen years into democracy, Peter Dlhamini still lives in a shack on land that is not his, where the toilet is a pit in the ground and the television is not plugged into an outlet -- there is none -- but hooked up to a generator.

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The African National Congress, which has led South Africa since liberating it from white rule, has done too little, Dlhamini said. But the party still has his vote.

"They started this problem," the carpet installer, 61, said at his home in this squatter settlement south of Johannesburg. "They have to solve it."

As many as 23 million South Africans will cast ballots Wednesday in an election featuring a new opposition party that has sought to attract disenchanted ANC voters. Yet opinion polls released this week predict that 67 percent of South Africans will, like Dlhamini, vote for the ruling party. That would preserve its dominance for another five years -- a prospect that has some here asking whether this beacon of democracy is becoming a one-party state.

The presidential candidate for the Congress of the People, the new opposition party, said last week that long-lived ruling parties in other African nations have "virtually turned into dictators" and that South Africa seemed headed down that perilous path. Helen Zille, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, has exhorted voters to prevent South Africa from becoming "a failed one-party state."

South Africa's likely next president, ANC leader Jacob Zuma, casts aside such qualms. He has been barnstorming the nation, urging voters to give the ruling party an even greater mandate.

"There is nothing in the constitution that says a massive majority for the ruling party is bad for democracy," he told supporters Sunday at a rally where he sat beside liberation icon Nelson Mandela. "Especially a party that has a track record of upholding the constitution like the ANC!"

Defectors to the new opposition party, an ANC splinter group known as COPE, accuse the ruling party of stifling dissent. The Democratic Alliance says the ANC-dominated Parliament has abused its power to dismantle a crime-fighting unit that investigated Zuma for corruption, fire a top prosecutor who was unwilling to drop charges against Zuma and strong-arm remaining prosecutors into scrapping the case.

The ANC is undergoing "Zanufication," the Democratic Alliance warned, referring to President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party in Zimbabwe, southern Africa's ultimate example of democracy-turned-autocracy.

But there are big differences. Though there have been isolated reports of voter intimidation in South Africa, people vote freely. Opposition parties campaign unfettered. Property rights remain strong, and the news media have shown no willingness to stop scrutinizing Zuma, despite his complaints that they are out to get him.

While prosecutors' abandonment of charges against Zuma sent a dangerous message that party insiders get special treatment, it was neither illegal nor unconstitutional, said Steven Friedman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy.

"One hopes that over time, politicians will get the message and realize that there's a great deal of public trust which needs to be restored," Friedman said. "But if that sort of situation destroyed democracy, there wouldn't be a democracy on the planet."


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