South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) on Saturday launched its campaign for an election that could see the party of the anti-apartheid struggle face a serious challenge from a breakaway group.
Jacob Zuma, the often controversial ANC leader, rallied tens of thousands of supporters in East London, in the south of the country, packed into a stadium that was a sea of yellow with people wearing the party’s T-shirt.
“Comrades, it is my honor and privilege to officially launch the 2009 ANC Election Manifesto!” Zuma told the crowd.
“The most important task of the beginning of the year is to ensure that the ANC returns a decisive election victory,” the 66-year-old leader said of the poll expected to be held in the first half of the year.
Standing in front of a banner declaring “Working together, we can do more,” Zuma outlined the priorities for the next five years: job creation, education, health, rural development, land reform and the fight against crime and corruption.
He also said South Africa would work to find solutions in the continent’s current hot spots: from Zimbabwe and Somalia to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The ANC, the party of liberation icon Nelson Mandela, has been in power for 15 years, since the end of the country’s white-minority apartheid rule.
The Democratic Alliance, the chief opposition movement in parliament, said Zuma’s speech was “long on promises, but short on credibility.”
“Every one of Jacob Zuma’s utterances is contradicted by the experience in reality,” said its leader Helen Zille. “If Zuma was serious about the fight against corruption, he would step down as the ANC presidential candidate until his name was cleared in court.”
Zuma, a convivial populist who has a charismatic hold on his legions of supporters, has survived constant brushes with controversy.
He was tried and cleared on a charge of rape and last year a court threw out corruption charges against him, with the judge suggesting that former president Thabo Mbeki had intervened in the legal process against his political rival.
The verdict was challenged by prosecutors and an appeal court judgment is expected today.
For the first time the ANC faces a serious challenge from the Congress of the People (COPE), set up last month by disillusioned former ANC activists.
Zuma is seen as the front-runner for the presidency after winning control of the ANC from Mbeki — who had earlier sacked him as deputy president — during the party’s conference in December 2007.
In September, Zuma’s allies forced Mbeki to resign as the country’s president just months before the end of his second term.
The in-fighting exposed deep splits within the party that led the struggle against apartheid and some analysts think COPE has a real chance of ending the ANC’s supremacy in the coming elections.