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In South Africa, Talk of a One-Party State
ANC's Unflagging Dominance Has Some Concerned

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.

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."

South Africa's democracy seemed to be getting more competitive as COPE rallied supporters who worried that the ANC's supremacy had made it complacent. But the breakaway party has been hindered by its ties to the ANC, analysts say, and because it chose a virtual unknown, a pastor named Mvume Dandala, as its presidential candidate. The party is expected to get about 11 percent of the vote.

The Democratic Alliance, meanwhile, remains widely known as a party for whites -- who make up most of its supporters -- and is expected to win about 13 percent. It won 12 percent of the vote in 2004.

It may not be time yet for the end of the ANC's reign. Hermann Giliomee, a South African political science professor who co-authored a book that compared one-party dominance in Taiwan, India and Mexico, noted that it took 20 to 70 years before ruling parties in those nations were defeated.

Such defeats typically happen when ruling party corruption becomes too entrenched or the gap between the party elite and the masses grows too wide, Giliomee said. The ANC is on its way, he said, pointing to a black economic empowerment program that has enriched a tiny circle of ANC-connected people, while 14 percent of the population still lives in informal housing.

"But people are very, very patient, especially toward those parties that talk about liberation, victory and revolution. They forgive quite frequently," Giliomee said.

Others argue that the ANC has done much to earn its following. The government says it has built 2.7 million free houses for the poor since 1994, and the number of households using electricity for lighting and cooking has doubled since 1996, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations, which says that attributing ANC support to liberation loyalties "ignores the very real successes of government in delivering services."

Among the beneficiaries is Asnath Mahlangu, 40, who was selling popcorn outside the ANC rally Sunday. After living for 17 years in a shack outside Pretoria, she said, she had recently moved into her government-provided, 430-square-foot house.

COPE's leaders started a new party because they lost power within the ANC, Mahlangu said. Whites who did nothing to overthrow the apartheid government, she said, run the Democratic Alliance.

"During the apartheid regime, the ANC put us in the freedom," she said. But they did not stop there, she said. "Long ago, we used to dig holes and get water from the ground! Now I drink pure water. From the tap."

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