South Africa's overwhelmingly popular African National Congress opened its election campaign on Saturday with promises of massive public spending to create jobs and a stronger social safety net, and more government intervention in the economy.
No date has been set for the parliamentary elections, which must be held by April.
The election manifesto, released at a stadium rally that drew about 60,000 people, offered no specifics on how funds would be raised for the spending. Budget constraints have kept the ANC from completely fulfilling such promises in the past.
The ANC, embraced as the party that led the battle against racist rule, has dominated each of the three previous votes since the first post-apartheid elections in 1994. It is expected to do well this year as well, though it faces a new challenge from former ANC members who founded a new party last year after the ANC forced Thabo Mbeki to step down as the nation's president. Mbeki pursued market friendly policies that have meant impressive growth since he first took office in 1999, but he is accused of doing too little to ensure the benefits reached the poor.
The party acknowledged on Saturday that the global economic meltdown presented a new hurdle. But it said the crisis was also an opportunity to look for new answers, "because of international recognition of the failure of policies such as neo-liberalism, liberalization and deregulation."
In the international financial meltdown, Western governments have nationalized banks and taken or considered other steps similar to those envisioned in the ANC manifesto. South Africa has one of the most vibrant economies in Africa, but is nonetheless plagued by high poverty, unemployment, and a devastating AIDS epidemic. ANC leader Jacob Zuma, who has his base among unions and the left and was greeted with wild cheering when he entered the stadium Saturday, said in a speech that South Africa has made strides since the end of apartheid. Millions more people have housing, access to clean water and social security payments. He said that "much more remains to be done, and that working together, we can do more." Linda Kulati, a 50-year-old teacher who joined the crowds in yellow "Vote ANC" T-shirts at Saturday's rally, praised the ANC for building roads and providing electricity for the poor, overwhelmingly black, majority that had been neglected under white rule. Now, Kulati says, she is expecting "much, much more," including new jobs and better schools.
The expected ANC parliamentary victory would ensure the presidency for Zuma. In South Africa, parliament elects the president.
The party manifesto called for more public investment in infrastructure; expanding public employment; increasing social security grants; setting up "soup kitchens" and other programs to fight hunger; and the introduction of a state-funded health insurance system.
South African economist Iraj Abedian said the document's emphasis on education, rural development and fighting crime was "spot on," but was concerned that nothing was said about the economic importance of the private sector and foreign investors. The document laid out "almost sole reliance on the state _ state leading, state creating jobs. That's almost a paradigm shift," Abedian said. " It is a matter of concern, and I'm sure business will find that in a way problematic."