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South Africa Breadbasket - Free State Province - Gets Ready to Vote

Inside the smoky confines of the V5 tavern in Bochabela, Vincent Mohlifi is dreaming.

"I dream for a day when we have true opposition to the ANC (African National Congress). It may not happen today or tomorrow, but I believe it will happen," he says, cigarette clutched firmly between two cracked fingers, swigging from a quart of his favorite beer.

Bochabela is on the outskirts of the city of Bloemfontein in South Africa's Free State province. Mohlifi is drinking with his people, the people he's lived with for the past 30 years. The fellow patrons of the V5 tavern shake their heads at him.

For Mohlifi is one of the few people in Bochabela willing to openly declare their support for the Congress of the People (COPE), established just 120 days ago to rival the ruling ANC in what many observers say is the most important election in South Africa since the 1994 vote, which saw the end of white minority rule.

"I just feel it's time for change. I just feel it's time we South Africans moved away from the politics of the past and stopped looking at race and other factors. That is why I am for COPE, because I believe it's the future, not the past," he says. "The struggle against apartheid is over! But the way the ANC is campaigning, a person would think it is 1985!"

Yet everywhere Mohlifi goeshe wears a T-shirt affirming support for the ANC.

"This shirt!" Mohlifi exclaims, "It is part of the past. But I still wear it to protect myself, to show the ANC people that I still respect their party. I used to be an ANC member myself. But too much is wrong here. Too many people have been left without the most basic of services," he says to himself, pulling at the fiber of his shirt.

"I just wish people here in Bochabela would not see me as anti-ANC. I am not anti-ANC; I am pro-South African!" he says.

Leaving the tavern, Mohlifi wanders down a rocky street, pointing at crumbling homes, gazing at mangy dogs with their heads firmly buried in uncollected refuse, their snouts emerging dripping with assorted foodstuff that has become slime.

"Hope! Vote for hope!" Mohlifi screams to no one in particular.

A few old ladies emerge from a broken-down brick home to witness the commotion.

Hope is the opposition's buzzword as the poll approaches, but Mohlifi, like many analysts studying the upcoming polls, acknowledges that there "is not much chance" of an opposition victory.

"It is no shame for us to lose," he smiles, dwarfed by a larger-than-life poster of ANC candidate Jacob Zuma. "What is important is that we are showing the world that South Africa is not a one-party state. We are one of the most democratic countries on earth. The ANC is dominant, yes, but it has not yet silenced the voices of people like me. We are still a beacon of hope in Africa. Our fight gives hope to all people. We refuse to be complacent in our so-called democracy. We are guardians of the truth."

Suddenly, in the midst of his comments, he is surrounded by a gaggle of schoolchildren. The fact that they're too young to vote does not curb their appetite for the diet of politics – and more politics – that South Africans have been fed the past few months.

"ANC! ANC! ANC!" the youngsters shriek, spotting Mohlifi's buttercup yellow T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Vote ANC."

Mohlifi keeps quiet – unable or unwilling to extinguish their adulation – and smiles as the schoolchildren continue to shriek.

"Are you going to be in the newspaper tomorrow?" one eager admirer asks Mohlifi.

The man pauses. He seems to struggle for words for the first time on this eve of one of the most important days in South Africa's history.

Then he answers. "Not tomorrow," he whispers to the schoolgirl. "But maybe sometime soon."