Thousands of ANC supporters celebrated with Jacob Zuma in Johannesburg on Thursday as the ruling party took a commanding lead in an election that looked set to make him president. "This party is an elephant. You cannot actually topple an elephant," Zuma told a sea of cheering supporters clad in the party colours of yellow, green and black at ANC headquarters in central Johannesburg.
Zuma, who danced and sang his trademark "Bring me my machine gun" anti-apartheid anthem, stressed the ANC was "not yet celebrating victory", although with more than half the votes counted, it was set for a resounding win. The African National Congress had 66.7 percent, according to the latest results, suggesting that despite a reinvigorated opposition challenge it could recapture the two-thirds majority that gives it the power to shape laws and entrench its hold.
Zuma, a polygamist who taught himself to read, portrays himself as a champion of the poor, and for many voters the ANC's credentials from the fight against white minority rule still outweigh its failure to tackle crime, poverty and AIDS. The Congress of the People (COPE) party, formed by ANC dissidents, had hoped to pose the first real challenge since the end of apartheid in 1994, but won 7.79 percent of votes counted.
The ANC's closest rival was the Democratic Alliance led by a white woman with 16.22 percent. The DA pulled ahead of the ANC in the Western Cape province South Africa's premier tourist destination, which is currently controlled by the ANC. "I feel very good about the national results. We are just above 50 percent in the Western Cape, that is what we were hoping for because it means we have doubled our numbers since last time," DA leader Helen Zille said.
The ANC won 45.25 percent of the Western Cape vote in the 2004 elections.The final result is not expected before Friday but there is little doubt the 67-year-old Zuma will become president only three weeks after managing to get prosecutors to drop an eight-year-old corruption case that had tainted his reputation.
Supporters cheered as Zuma, dressed in a red polo shirt and leather jacket, used a speech peppered with his native Zulu to play up the party's grassroots links and capitalise on his populist appeal. "I'm here to celebrate. We won the election fair and square. It was my first time to vote and I'm very excited," said Veronica Moleme, shortly before Zuma spoke.
Among Zuma's first tasks will be reassuring foreign investors who fear trade union allies will push him towards the left at a time the continent's biggest economy could already be in recession for the first time in 17 years. The rand firmed slightly early on Thursday after the smooth election, but later gave up the gains.
He has repeatedly said there will be no nasty surprises in store for investors and his room for policy manoeuvre is limited because of the global downturn. Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, a market favourite, is expected to stay for now. Zuma has also pledged to tackle the rampant violent crime which could mar next year's hosting of the soccer World Cup.
Election officials estimated the turnout at 76 percent, the same as 2004, when the ANC won 70 percent of the vote. Police said the election was largely peaceful, although COPE said one of its officials was shot dead in what it believed to be a political killing.