South Africa will soon face another turning point in its political life. Analysts say the upcoming elections are the most significant since the country's first democratic polls in 1994, which saw iconic freedom fighter Nelson Mandela become president, ending decades of white minority rule ? or apartheid. And now, observers say, the emergence of a new political party to rival the ruling African National Congress, the ANC, will make these elections particularly intriguing.

Since 1994, the ANC has established itself as South Africa's most powerful political party, winning almost 70 percent of the vote in the previous election, in 2004. Some analysts doubt, though, whether the ANC is capable of a repeat performance in the April 22 polls. But they still expect the party to emerge victorious, with a significant majority. 

It's the ruling party's leader, Jacob Zuma, who's expected to become South Africa's next president, succeeding his party colleague, Kgalema Motlanthe.

Zuma, however, is tainted by allegations of corruption regarding his homeland's multibillion dollar arms deal. Investigators say the likely president received bribes from a French arms manufacturer. However, South   Africa's National Prosecuting Authority has dropped graft charges against Zuma, on the grounds that there'd been "political interference" in the probe into the ANC leaders' activities.

Opposition parties have condemned the decision, arguing that the government has itself interfered in the country's judicial process to ensure that Zuma escapes criminal prosecution. They agree that even if there was indeed "political interference" to ensure that Zuma was investigated and prosecuted, this does not dilute the fact that there is substantial evidence that the prospective president received bribes worth millions of dollars. They say the only way for the ANC president to indeed prove his innocence is in a court of law.  

'We will kill for Zuma'

The run-up to the April election has been characterized by intense rivalry ? and sometimes open hostility ? between particularly the newly formed Congress of the People (COPE) and the ANC.

Last year, some senior ANC members broke away from the party to form COPE, largely in protest against Zuma's leadership of the ANC.

The ANC says if Zuma is indeed elected president, as expected, and he's later found guilty of criminality, he will withdraw from office. But certain prominent ANC members, including Youth League chairman Julius Malema, have said they're prepared to "kill" to ensure that Zuma remains president.

Some observers say "inflammatory" statements such as these have created an atmosphere conducive to election violence, but ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe disagrees.

"The point that (some) people are trying to make is that the ANC has become reckless. The ANC has not become reckless?. Young people are militant and sometimes make statements that can be characterized as reckless. It is our responsibility to take them through development processes until they become mature leaders who do not commit silly mistakes," Mantashe told VOA in a wide-ranging interview at ANC headquarters in central Johannesburg.

'100% Zulu Boy'

Zuma supporters have also wore T-shirts emblazoned with "100% Zulu Boy" ? in reference to their favored candidate's ethnicity and in an apparent slight to Xhosa members of the ANC. Opposition parties say acts such as this are extremely confrontational and have introduced a dangerous ethnic rivalry into mainstream South African politics.

Mantashe maintained that Zuma supporters only wore the T-shirts at the ANC's conference at Polokwane in December 2007, when party members had voted overwhelmingly for Zuma as ANC president, ousting then-South African president Thabo Mbeki. The event was a precursor to the ANC's effective dismissal of Mbeki as South Africa's president last year, after a judge suggested that Mbeki had instigated criminal investigations against his rival, Zuma.

"(Ethnic rivalry) is not in the South African politics; it was within the context of the contestation (of the ANC presidency) within the ANC," said Mantashe. "Since then, you will never find that T-shirt anywhere. Because Jacob Zuma has no 'supporters'; he is the president of the African National Congress, not a faction."

Zuma's 'dying' friend released from jail

In 2005, Zuma's former financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for making corrupt payments to the ANC leader.

Opposition parties and many South Africans have expressed outrage at Schaik's recent release from prison on the grounds that he's terminally ill. The ANC's opponents say this is evidence that the ruling party considers itself and its members to be above the law and that there is one law in South Africa for the ANC and another law for the rest.

Mantashe dismissed these claims, emphasizing that the release of Zuma's friend from prison was at the behest of South Africa's Correctional Services Department, not as a result of any pressure from the ANC and Zuma.

"If a prisoner is (terminally) sick, that prisoner should be released; if a prisoner must get a parole, that prisoner must get a parole (from Correctional Services). It is not an African National Congress issue," Mantashe told VOA.

But South Africa's media have uncovered evidence that Shaik is suffering from "hypertension" and not a terminal illness and that he made an offer on a luxury home shortly before his release from jail ? not the actions of a dying man, say opposition parties.

Nevertheless, Mantashe maintained that no favoritism had been shown to Zuma's friend by the ANC ? even though South Africa's prisons are filled with convicts who are dying of sicknesses associated with HIV/AIDS and who remain in prison despite having applied for parole.

Mantashe said the perception that the ANC had interfered to ensure the release from jail of someone who had close ties to the party was a "deliberate forgetting.