Decision Time for the Rainbow Nation

Mass enthusiasm for politics may be dead in Europe, but election rallies in South Africa have the dynamism of rock concerts and the verve of evangelical services. When the African National Congress held its final tumultuous gathering before tomorrow's general election, a football stadium in Johannesburg with a capacity of 60,000 proved inadequate for the task, and an overflow venue with another 37,000 seats had to be pressed into service. At the rally's climax, almost 100,000 people rose as one and sang their favourite number, Bring Me My Machine Gun.

Jacob Zuma, who will soon be South Africa's president, seized a microphone and led the packed terraces in belting out the anthem, which he composed himself during the anti-apartheid struggle. Then came a unique dance, again of his own invention, whose movements suggested that Mr Zuma was trying to scoop ants from the floor and imitate a bird in flight.

Mr Zuma knows that he will win this election, so this event was a victory celebration, before a single vote had been cast. Modesty has no place in the ANC's lexicon, so no one was surprised to learn that the rally's official theme was Siyanqoba, or "We Are The Conquerors".

But will his ANC behave as conquerors after their inevitable victory? That question is what makes this election, despite its preordained outcome, so crucial for South Africa – because it will decide exactly how much leeway Mr Zuma will enjoy, and whether he is able to behave like one of the conquering Zulu kings he so admires. If the ANC wins a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, it will have almost complete freedom to rewrite the constitution at will. The historic settlement that followed apartheid's downfall in 1994 and transformed South Africa into a democratic "rainbow nation", admired across the world, will be entirely in his hands.

The second crucial question that will be decided tomorrow is whether the ANC's embattled opponents will be able to knock a few dents in the ruling party's political dominance. Opinion polls suggest that the Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition movement, has a realistic chance of taking Western Cape Province. If so, Helen Zille, the DA's leader, will become the local premier and one of her allies will take over her current job as mayor of Cape Town. At a stroke, the ANC will be relegated to the official opposition in one of South Africa's richest provinces and its most famous city.

As political earthquakes go, this would be a modest affair. The ANC will probably rule the other eight provinces and its national hegemony will not be broken for many years to come. But preserving South Africa's democracy requires checks and balances on Mr Zuma. This election will either impose these constraints – or leave everything at the mercy of the Zulu chief's good nature.

That may not be enough to rely on. Mr Zuma is, above all, an old-fashioned African chief. The 67-year-old, who was born in poverty and never went to school, was a pillar of the ANC's campaign against apartheid, commanding the intelligence wing of the movement's guerrilla army and spending 10 years on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. It was during his time in jail that Mr Zuma taught himself to read and write.

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