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Mandela appears at ANC rally before SA polls

world Updated: Apr 19, 2009 19:34 IST

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Nelson Mandela made an unannounced appearance on Sunday at the African National Congress' last major rally before parliamentary elections in South Africa, a boost for the party after an internal power struggle and scandals surrounding its presidential candidate.

The frail, 90-year-old Mandela did not address the crowd of 100,000 gathered at adjacent stadiums in central Johannesburg. But he gave ANC presidential candidate Jacob Zuma competition for adoration from the crowd.

Wild cheering broke out as Mandela was driven into a stadium on a golf cart. He was helped onstage with some difficulty, then sat with a wide smile on a couch and warmly greeted party leaders, including former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Later, Mandela listened along with the crowd as a brief video message he had recorded earlier was shown on a giant screen. Mandela said the ANC was best placed to lead South Africans in "our primary task" of eradicating poverty and improving the lives of a black majority neglected under apartheid and still far behind both whites and an emerging, tiny black elite.

It was only the second appearance of this campaign for Mandela, who has largely retired from public life. But no one has doubted his loyalty to the party South Africans embrace for defeating apartheid and building homes and creating jobs since first winning power in the first all-race vote in 1994.

Mandela served one term as the nation's president, from 1994 to 1999, before stepping aside for younger leaders and to focus on fighting AIDS and supporting international peacemaking efforts. The ANC has been accused of exploiting Mandela's iconic status. Zuma twice said Sunday that Mandela had asked to be part of the campaign.

The theme of the rally, "We are winning," reflected the party's optimism _ and widespread expectations it will take a sweeping victory in Wednesday's parliamentary elections.

The rally was broadcast live on state TV, treatment the much smaller opposition parties in South Africa don't receive. The Johannesburg event also was beamed to screens at other ANC rallies across the country.

Members of parliament elect the president, so a victory Wednesday would ensure the presidency for Zuma. The T-shirts that supporters _ including Mandela _ wore featured Zuma's face. Some say the 67-year-old Zuma is the country's most popular leader since Mandela. Walter Kwatsi, a 33-year-old supermarket worker who carried a poster at the rally comparing Zuma to President Barack Obama, was among the millions of poor South Africans who believe the ANC leader's impoverished background gives him insight into their lives. "All the people love Jacob Zuma," Kwatsi said. "He's the man who's going to deliver _ deliver water, electricity, houses, jobs, everything."

The ANC launched its campaign with promises of massive public spending to create jobs. It has pulled back on such rhetoric in the face of the global economic downturn, and stressed the modest goal of keeping job losses in check. But Zuma also promised investment in transportation, education and health care to build a base for growth "once the recovery begins."

Zuma, who joined the ANC in 1959, was jailed for 10 years on Robben Island, alongside Mandela and other heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. He also spent 15 years in exile. Then-President Thabo Mbeki appointed him deputy president in 1999 _ and fired him in 2005, when Zuma was implicated in the corruption trial of a close friend and financial adviser.

Prosecutors announced earlier this month they would not pursue a separate corruption case against Zuma because of procedural problems, though they said they still believed they had a strong case. In 2006, Zuma was acquitted of rape accusations.