TOPICS > Politics

In South Africa, Zuma Poised to Assume Presidency

April 22, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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As South Africans cast ballots Wednesday in a parliamentary election that will determine a new president, forecasts show the ruling party's Jacob Zuma is likely to win. NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault describes the challenges that will confront the nation's new leader, including rising unemployment and high crime rates.

MARGARET WARNER: The polls have now officially closed in South Africa’s fourth national election since the end of apartheid 15 years ago.

Voters are choosing members of parliament, who will pick a president, and that choice is widely expected to be Jacob Zuma, a one-time anti-apartheid fighter and head of the ruling African National Congress Party.

Zuma and the ANC face a formidable list of problems: rising unemployment, officially at 22 percent and believed to be double that; an HIV-AIDS crisis; and high crime rates.

For more, we go to Charlayne Hunter-Gault of National Public Radio in Pretoria.

And, Charlayne, welcome. You were at the polls today. Tell us what the turnout was like and what the atmosphere was like.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, National Public Radio: This has been the most amazing turnout since I covered the 1994 elections for the NewsHour, in fact. The lines were very, very long. People stood in line from 3 o’clock this morning.

And the polls, as you just said, have officially closed, but there are people standing in line now. One man I heard on the radio coming over here to this studio saying he had been in line since 8 o’clock this morning. It’s now after 9 o’clock, and he hasn’t had a chance to vote.

So there’s a real excitement in the air. As the electoral commission has said, this is like a watershed, a one-of-a-kind election.

Challenges to the majority party

MARGARET WARNER: Well, do your conversations with voters support the polls that suggest the ANC is definitely going to win this thing? Or is it more unclear than that?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: No, it's not a matter of whether the ANC wins. It's a matter of whether the -- that's definite. That's a given. It's a matter of whether the ANC holds on to its two-thirds majority, which gives it the power, if it chooses, to make laws, change the constitution, et cetera. So that's the real big question.

And because there are a number of new factors and elements -- part of which makes this thing so exciting -- it's not clear that the polls are accurate. They've been going back and forth between 64 percent, 65 percent, whatever. And so it's really sort of open now as to whether the ANC will retain its two-thirds.

And part of that is because there's a new party, the Congress of the People, formed by breakaway ANC members. And they've been campaigning pretty hard to be the official opposition to cut into that two-thirds majority.

The party that now is the official opposition, a predominantly white party, the Democratic Alliance, has reached out to be more inclusive. They're coming on strong.

And then there's a whole new element of young voters who were born after the end of apartheid. We call them the "born frees" here. And they don't have the same emotional attachment to the party of Nelson Mandela and his comrades.

They're looking at a different South Africa, one that they haven't had to struggle in, one that they've benefited from because of the struggle, but they're looking at promises for their own future, many of them college students who will be graduating and hoping that there will be an economy that will provide them with a job and a decent wage.

And they're split between the party of their parents, the African National Congress, which employs many of them, but, also, as in America, young people who voted for change, so that's part of what's made this whole thing so exciting.

Some question Zuma's character

MARGARET WARNER: And then tell us about Jacob Zuma. He is very much of the older generation, but he's quite different from his two predecessors, I mean, from Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, isn't he?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, this is a self-made man, not formally educated. He was part of the struggle. The underground Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation, which was the armed wing, their veterans think so highly of him. He served 10 years, though, on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and he rose to become deputy president of the country.

But there was a controversial arms deal in which his business partner was implicated for taking a bribe from one of the arms bidders and the presumption was on behalf of Jacob Zuma, and so he was sentenced to 15 years in jail.

Well, eventually, there were charges brought against Zuma -- corruption, racketeering, money laundering, bribery -- and this was all related to that same thing, but Zuma continued to insist that these things were politically motivated. And eventually, just a few days before the election, the charges were dropped on a technicality.

The other problem that hangs over his head is the rape trial. Now, he was acquitted of rape, but what hangs over him is the fact that some of the young people in particular, but many others, still remember that he said that, in order to keep from getting HIV infections, after he had sex with an HIV-positive woman, he took a shower.

Now, you know, he was acquitted, and the charges against him were dropped. And he insists that there's no cloud over his head.

But many of the students, for example, the young voters that I talked to, raised this issue. And so this is what makes him have a real challenge as he comes into office, which he surely will.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, when the head of the election commission, whom you just quoted, called this a watershed election, what did she mean?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: There is a new generation of voters -- they may not be young voters necessarily, but they include the young voters -- who want some change and may be voting for the D.A. or COPE. And the possibility of the losing parties forming a coalition could very well affect that majority that the ANC has, or at least become a stronger opposition than it has now.

And many people, even many who support the African National Congress, say that, at 15 years old, this democracy needs for its survival and ongoing benefit a strong opposition. So that's what makes it such a watershed election. Nothing like this has happened in this post-apartheid history of this country.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Charlayne, thanks so much. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, National Public Radio, formerly NewsHour. Thanks a lot.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Margaret.