South Africans lined up before sunrise yesterday to vote in an election energized by the hugely popular Jacob Zuma, who has overcome scandals and helped generate an excitement not seen since the country’s first multiracial vote in 1994.
Zuma, one of the African National Congress (ANC) party’s most popular leaders ever, is poised to become president. The poor black majority connects with his deprived background and he has promised to speed up delivery of jobs, houses, schools and clinics.
The ANC was expecting an overwhelming victory in the parliamentary election. The emergence of a party that broke away from the ANC, while not expected to be a formidable challenger, did force the ANC to campaign more aggressively.
Parliament elects South Africa’s president, putting Zuma in line for the post when the new assembly votes next month after he survived corruption and sex scandals that once threatened to derail his political career.
“Never did I think as I was growing up here that one day I would cast my vote here as I am doing,” he told reporters in the rural Zulu heartland of eastern South Africa where he voted.
Zuma was greeted by supporters who cheered and broke into his signature song from the anti-apartheid era, Umshini Wami, which means “bring me my machine gun.”
In Johannesburg, crowds also cheered and sang for Mandela as the anti-apartheid icon cast his vote. People had waited after voting themselves at Mandela’s station and others came from elsewhere in town just to see him. Mandela smiled broadly but did not speak.
The ANC sees Zuma as its first leader to energize voters since Mandela became South Africa’s first black president in 1994. Mandela appeared on Sunday alongside Zuma at his final campaign rally.
In the early afternoon, chief elections official Brigalia Bam reported that, overall, voting was progressing well. A record number of people — more than 23 million — have registered to vote and election officials were expecting a turnout of about 80 percent.
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 that election and every one 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 as corrupt and antidemocratic.
Retired Cape Town Archbishop Desmond Tutu has questioned whether Zuma is fit to govern. Casting his ballot in Cape Town yesterday, Tutu would not say which party he favored.
“I feel good, but it isn’t like the previous elections. That is true of so many people who are having to ask questions,” Tutu said.
The governing party has been accused of moving too slowly over the last 15 years to improve the lives of the black majority. During this campaign, the ANC has stressed its commitment to creating jobs and a stronger social safety net.
There have been concerns that Zuma’s alliance with the communists and trade unions would make him veer from the market-friendly monetary policies of Mandela’s successor as president, Thabo Mbeki.