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South Africa Readies for Election

Some 23 million South Africans are preparing to go to the polls Wednesday to choose a president, parliament and provincial leaders. The campaigning reached a feverish pitch in the final days leading up to the vote as candidates crisscrossed the nation seeking votes.

It is well past mid-day in Ngwelezane, a township 160 kilometers up the coast from Durban.

Thousands of supporters of the ruling African National Congress have been waiting for hours under a burning sun to see ANC leader and favorite son Jacob Zuma campaign in his home region.

Although the ANC is expected to win Wednesday's election making Zuma South Africa's next president, he is barnstorming for votes because this area previously supported the rival Inkatha Freedom Party of Mangosothu Buthelezi.

Zuma dances and sings with the crowd, showing the traditional roots that have made him popular with many.

In remarks in the Zulu language he tells them that the ANC has learned from the mistakes of its past 15 years in government. He promises to improve the lives of the impoverished majority.

He says education will be a top priority for his government. He wants everyone to be educated, whether rich or poor, because, an educated nation can stand and develop on its own. Other priorities are improving social services and fighting poverty.

Clement Ngomeza, 37, has taken the day off from work to attend the rally. He explains what he expects from a Zuma government.

"Our priorities: Education is the top one. If we can get a very good education, that would be our number one," he said. "The other priorities are jobs, decent jobs."

Nombuso Ngwuenyama, 23, a mother of two who lost her mother to AIDS two years ago. She notes that South Africa has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world.

"The first thing [is] about HIV and AIDS", she said. "They have to find what they are going to do with the health in the hospitals, including the children that don't have parents. They have to go there and look after them. They have to give them food because they are starving."

The ANC, since coming to power 15 years ago, has created millions of jobs, built two million low-income houses and delivered electricity and social services to millions of poor South Africans.

But it is criticized for not doing enough for the poor and for allowing a culture of corruption and cronyism to spread in government.

The largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is campaigning on these issues. DA leader Helen Zille wants to reduce the ANC's two-thirds majority in parliament saying its absolute control over government has led to abuses of power.

"The major issues are poverty, unemployment, poor education, poor health systems, all tribulations of a developing country," she said. "But the truth is that you can't deal with any of those unless the constitution is in place, unless there is good law, unless there is respect for the rule of law. All of that architecture has to be in place. Otherwise it is not possible to make proper progress on all of the other problems."

A new party, the Congress of the People or COPE, was formed four months ago by ANC dissidents who split after the Zuma leadership forced former President Thabo Mbeki to resign.

COPE's presidential candidate Mvume Dandala, a Methodist pastor, is worried over reports that ANC leaders have used the courts and security services to undermine political rivals. He says honesty and ethics must be returned to government.

"The key institutions that are meant to ensure that a society sticks by its values, like the judiciary, have got to be protected and their independence has got to be jealously guarded," he said. "Failure to do so will lead to a state of real anarchy in our future."

But the ANC has money, organization and the legacy of decades of struggle against apartheid. And Zuma, who likes to close his rallies with a struggle song called, "Bring Me My Machine Gun," does not let that be forgotten.

And these credentials, combined with Zuma's humble background and common touch, appeals to many of South Africa's least advantaged voters.