ANC wins country but loses richest province

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress neared its aim of a two-thirds majority in elections today but lost power in the country’s richest province because of hostility from mixed-race voters.

Although it was the country’s fourth peaceful multiracial vote since the end of apartheid in 1994, the results in the Western Cape were a reminder that South Africa’s racial divides still run deep.

The province is the heart of the country’s wine and tourism industries, and also a region where mixed-race voters account for more than half the population while they are a small minority nationwide. They were treated better than blacks under apartheid’s racist rules; now many feel marginalised and forgotten.

The largely white Democratic Alliance aggressively courted mixed-race voters ahead of Wednesday’s vote and was close to gaining an outright majority in the provincial legislature there.

The ANC had no hope of catching up, trailing with less than one-third of the vote, ahead of smaller opposition parties. It was a humiliating setback for the ruling party, which otherwise maintained its grip on power.

Zwelinzima Vavi, head of the national trade union movement and one of the ANC’s most influential figures, said the Western Cape result was “disappointing but not surprising.”

“The ANC (in the Western Cape) had been deeply hurt by infighting and factional battles that have run for five years,” he said.

Final results were expected later today or early tomorrow. Preliminary results from the nearly 14.5 million ballots counted so far from Wednesday’s election showed the ANC was leading the national vote with 66.91% and closing in on its goal of winning at least a two-thirds majority of parliament.

Parliament elects South Africa’s president by a simple majority, putting ANC leader Jacob Zuma in line for the post when the new assembly votes in May.

The ANC views Mr Zuma as the first leader who can energise voters since the legendary Nelson Mandela, and he has survived corruption and sex scandals that would have derailed a less wily populist. But with his all-but-official victory, Mr Zuma takes on a heavy responsibility – meeting expectations for change among South Africa’s impoverished black majority.

The ANC swept South Africa’s first post-apartheid election in 1994 and the two following that. In 2004, it took 69.69% of the parliamentary vote.

If the ANC fails to at least match that this year, it will be seen as a message from voters that they want some limits on the party. A two-thirds majority allows the ANC to enact major budgetary plans or legislation unchallenged, or to change the constitution.

Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille, who has won praise for her run as mayor of Cape Town, said ahead of the elections that her main goals were to stop the ANC’s two thirds majority and to win the Western Cape.

Hundreds of supporters – most of them mixed-race – greeted her when she returned to Cape Town today after monitoring election results in Pretoria. Even baggage handlers and security staff danced for joy. An airline passenger with an ANC T-shirt was loudly jeered.

“The Western Cape will set an example for the whole country, for democracy in South Africa,” she told them in an impromptu thank-you speech in the airport car park.

Mixed race origin make up about half the Western Cape’s population, while black Africans comprise about 30% and whites about 18%. This is in contrast to the national picture, where blacks account for 80% of the population and mixed race and whites each for 9%.

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