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Upcoming S. African Elections Will Test Patricia De Lille's New Party - 2004-04-08

A new South African opposition party is expected to make a big splash in next week's general elections. The Independent Democrats party is led by the charismatic and popular Patricia De Lille, one of the country's most outspoken politicians. Her emergence has rattled other opposition politicians, who fear she could siphon votes away from them. But analysts say South Africa still lacks a viable opposition party.

Patricia De Lille is nothing if not opinionated. She has built a reputation as a fierce watchdog on corruption, and as a vocal critic of both the government and other opposition leaders.

"We fought against apartheid, as much as for justice and what is right in our country. Today, that fight continues," she said. "You can't change your stance and your principles when government changes. You need to be consistent! You have to earn respect from our communities, and you have to work, and work damn hard to prove yourself. You can't just declare you are now a changed angel."

Until last year, Ms. De Lille was easily the most recognizable member of parliament for the Pan-Africanist Congress, a party with a long history of struggle against apartheid. But the PAC has declined amid a series of party squabbles, and last year, Ms. De Lille broke away and formed her own party, the Independent Democrats.

In its brief existence, her party has attracted a remarkable amount of grassroots support, much of it driven by her firebrand personality and reputation for standing by her principles.

South Africa's largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is so worried about Ms. De Lille's ability to attract voters that it has been running attack ads, specifically targeting her, rather than the ruling African National Congress.

Democratic Alliance spokesman Douglas Gibson says, what South Africa needs is a united opposition - preferably united behind his party. "In South Africa, we've got a plethora of one-woman and one-man parties, splinter parties," he said. "The fact is that all of these little splinter parties, in fact, weaken the opposition. None of them weaken the ANC. None of them challenge the ANC. They all weaken the opposition."

Mr. Gibson's Democratic Alliance has often been seen as a white party, although it has made a concerted effort to attract more black voters. But some analysts believe Ms. De Lille - who is mixed-race or colored - might be better able to attract support across racial lines.

But analysts say it is difficult to say whether this is the long-awaited arrival of a non-racial South African opposition party.

Political analyst Steven Friedman of the Center for Policy Studies says there may be something to the one-woman-party allegation, but he says a surprising number of voters do not seem to care.

"You know, it isn't really a political party at the moment," he said. "It's an idea in somebody's head. Now, it's interesting that a lot of suburban folks think that an idea in somebody's head is a better bet than the official opposition. It's interesting how widespread this is. It just tells you something about how people feel about the official opposition."

For her part, Ms. De Lille calls the fragmented-opposition theory a fallacy and a stupid argument, based on outdated ideas about race and loyalty. "And it's when you are able, like the Independent Democrats, the first political party that speaks to issues that are close to the hearts and minds of all South Africans, that you are able to break that racial mold," he said. "So, in fact, the Independent Democrats will be growing the opposition vote, rather than fragmenting it, because the past 10 years they have failed to grow the vote of the opposition, because they've become caught up in race politics."

Political analyst Zubeida Jaffer of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation says Ms. De Lille appears to be doing particularly well among white women, but does not seem to be making inroads into the traditional support base of the ANC, which is expected to win at least two-thirds of the votes.

Even though Ms. Jaffer likes Ms. De Lille, she says South Africa is still lacking a viable opposition party.

"There isn't a real alternative for people. I've asked many," she said. "They're voting for the ANC and I've asked them, why? And they're saying that they sort of feel the ANC must still be given a chance. But secondly, they say there's no alternative. Absolutely none. They don't see any other parties as an alternative. So, I think the state of our opposition is really, really sad at the moment."

Independent Democrats parliamentary candidate Lance Greyling acknowledges that the year-old party has a lot of work to do, if it wants to mature into a lasting political movement.

"What we see is that one of our greatest challenges comes after the election," he said. "That's going to be the period when we have to consolidate the party and really start building strong leadership, and really start to build support structures on the ground. Because we've only had a year to do that, and obviously over the next five years, we've really got to give meat to the party, and make sure that we've got strong discipline within that."

Party leader Patricia De Lille says she is hoping to take 10 percent of the vote on April 14. But her rivals in the Democratic Alliance insist she is not likely to win more than two percent.

Even that would be a big improvement over Ms. De Lille's old party, the PAC, which took less than one percent of the vote in 1999.