South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) says it's confident it will win more than 70 percent of the vote when the country holds elections in six weeks. Party secretary-general Gwede Mantashe has guaranteed that the ANC will not tamper with South Africa's constitution if it sweeps the polls and gains a large majority in parliament. Opposition parties have expressed this fear, saying the ANC is set to change the law to protect its presidential candidate, Jacob Zuma, from prosecution for alleged corruption.
Mantashe's views carry weight as he's third in the pecking order of the ANC behind party president and prospective SA leader, Jacob Zuma, and ANC deputy president and currentpresident, Kgalema Motlanthe.
Speaking from his office at the ANC's Johannesburg headquarters, Luthuli House, Mantashe told VOA that the ANC was Zuma's "natural home" and that he deserved to be president of South Africa by virtue of the "key roles" he played in the country's struggle against white minority rule.
With only weeks to go before South Africans vote in what's widely seen as the most important polls since the nation's first democratic elections in 1994, opposition parties continue to attack Zuma as a result of his alleged corruption. South Africa's elite Scorpions crime fighting unit has investigated the potential president for allegedly receiving bribes from a French arms manufacturer related to the country's multimillion dollar arms deal.
Zuma will '"step down" if convicted
The ANC has repeatedly repudiated calls from opposition parties for Zuma to withdraw as the ANC's presidential candidate.
"(Zuma) has been having these charges hanging over his head for close to 10 years. They have been thrown out of court twice. That's why from where we are seated, we have said that this is not prosecution but persecution," stressed Mantashe. "Therefore if he's persecuted, I think we will be playing into the hands of those who want to weaken the ANC, if we withdraw him (as presidential candidate). We want him to contest (the elections)."
Mantashe, however, added that if a "legitimate" case against Zuma is proceeding, and he is eventually found guilty of criminality, the ANC will ensure that he "steps down" as president of the country.
Zuma's trial is set for August, meaning that South Africa could see its sitting president being tried in a court of law on charges of fraud and corruption. The country's constitution does not shield a president from criminal prosecution.
But opposition parties maintain that, if the ANC gains a two-thirds majority in parliament after the April 22 elections, the party will change the constitution to prevent Zuma from being prosecuted. But Mantashe denied that this would happen.
"The ANC is (currently) having 70 percent in parliament. It has not tampered with the constitution for (the past) five years. In the manifesto of the ANC this year, there's nothing that indicates that the ANC is intending to tamper with the constitution. And (if we gain) 70 percent (majority in parliament after the next elections) ? (we will make) no change (to the constitution). If we win two-thirds majority, there is no preoccupation with changing the constitution in the ANC."
"Inefficient" Scorpions disbanded
South Africa's Scorpions agency played the central role in investigating Zuma's allegedly corrupt role in the arms deal. But the ANC-controlled government recently disbanded the unit. Opposition parties allege that in so doing, the ANC is seeking to protect its corrupt members and placing itself above the law.
Mantashe maintained that the Scorpions had been disbanded because of "inefficiency," not as a result of the unit investigating a senior ANC member.
Mantashe explained: "The Scorpions consisted of (about) 600 investigators. They investigated, on average, 325 cases per annum. You average that, and it means that every investigator in the Scorpions investigated 0.6 cases per annum. Obviously you can't defeat crime and corruption at that pace. That's why we have opted for the establishment of a bigger, serious crime fighting unit, which will also house the Scorpions and other specialist units."
He assured South Africans that law enforcement agencies will continue to investigate, arrest and prosecute any people who commit crime., no matter their position in society.
Opposition parties, though, say there are many allegations of criminal behavior against ANC members at the moment that aren't being investigated, despite ample evidence against them.
No war room
Mantashe also dismissed the supposed challenge posed to the ANC in the upcoming elections by South Africa's newest political party, the Congress of the People (COPE). Last year some senior ANC members broke away from the ruling party to form COPE, and some analysts thereby saw the emergence of true opposition to the ANC's dominance of South African politics.
Mantashe said, "There are 156 registered political parties in South Africa. Forty of those are going to be contesting the coming elections. And Cope is but one of those parties. I am very cautious of exaggerating the impact of Cope in the (South African) political arena. From where we are seated as the African National Congress, we see every party as competing for the same space, we take every party (seriously)."
The ANC secretary-general denied reports that his party had established a so-called "war room" in Luthuli House to "dig up the dirt" on COPE leaders with the aim of weakening the party.
"I don't know where the 'war room' is; I am still looking for it. The people who talk about it must go and point it out for me. So, to us, we don't think there are special measures (we need to take) about Cope," Mantashe said.
However, as campaigning intensifies in South Africa, there've been several reports of ANC supporters invading and disrupting COPE meetings and even attacking COPE agents.
Mantashe sought to downplay this behavior, saying he hadn't received "any report of a person who is dead because of an attack by ANC members."
Rather than being a perpetrator of political violence, he said, the ANC was in actual fact a victim of it.
"We have members who have died because they have been attacked by supporters of other parties. Even in those extreme situations, we have not retaliated. So it is an anomaly to accuse the ANC of being this bully boy who goes around disrupting other people's meetings. And people can't point to any victim of that disruption. We can point (at our supporters who've been victims of political attacks); some of them we have buried."