South African election leaves citizens excited, hopeful for change as Zuma takes presidency

JOHANNESBURG – South Africa’s governing party set off fireworks and popped fizzy bottles of champagne yesterday as ballots were counted in the country’s latest election. ANC chief Jacob Zuma said he was only thanking campaign workers – but the celebration left little doubt about his ascension to the presidency. Zuma reminded several thousand supporters gathered outside his party’s downtown Johannesburg headquarters that the tally was still going on – a technical point that hardly affected the party mood. But he noted with relish that skeptics who had claimed his African National Congress party wouldn’t get 60 percent of the parliamentary vote now ‘are saying 70.’ With the all-but-official victory, Zuma takes on a heavy responsibility – meeting expectations for change among South Africa’s impoverished black majority. But that was for another day – an ebullient Zuma drew wild cheers as he leapt high with one troupe of dancers and boogied with another with an energy that belied his 67 years. That ability to connect, and Zuma’s rise from poverty to political prominence have drawn adoring crowds throughout the election campaign. Critics, though, question whether he can implement his populist agenda amid the global economic meltdown. There were calls throughout the rally for his signature song, ‘Bring Me My Machine Gun,’ and Zuma obliged, but not before singing another apartheid-era song on prevailing against all odds. The crowd was scathing about the opposition, parading coffins decorated with the insignia of other parties. Zuma did not join the mocking – he has pledged to improve the ANC’s relations with other parties, part of a more responsive and open executive. Preliminary results from the 10.09 million ballots counted so far yesterday showed Zuma’s ANC party leading the vote with 66.70 percent. Parliament elects South Africa’s president by a simple majority, putting Zuma in line for the post when the new assembly votes in May. A record 23 million South Africans registered to vote. A 77 percent turnout has been recorded at those polling stations where counting has finished. Final results are expected late yesterday or possibly today. The ANC views Zuma as the first leader who can energize voters since the legendary Nelson Mandela. Te Ngubane, 52, a police station clerk, said she felt South Africa’s previous government, under Zuma’s ANC rival Thabo Mbeki, hadn’t listened to people like her. She was at yesterday’s downtown rally with her friend Precious Mosiane, 25, who is looking for work. ‘We are expecting a lot – many houses, schools, jobs,’ Mosiane said. ‘We are aware that the economy is in trouble, but we are going to make sure’ the government fulfills its promises. The ANC has swept every poll since the first post-apartheid election in 1994. In 2004, the ruling ANC won 69.69 percent of the vote. The ANC needs to keep its two-thirds majority to enact major budgetary plans or legislation unchallenged, or to change the constitution. The largely white opposition Democratic Alliance, according to yesterday’s preliminary count, had 16.16 percent. It was expected to take South Africa’s richest province, the Western Cape, from the ANC.