South Africa's Ruling Party Leads In Elections

Preliminary results indicate that South Africa's ruling African National Congress appears to be leading in parliamentary elections. If the party wins, Jacob Zuma would become president.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Early returns in South Africa's elections have the African National Congress leading by a commanding margin. And that means its leader, Jacob Zuma, will become president. Fifteen years after the end of apartheid, he'll be faced with major challenges. With us now is NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault from election center in South Africa.

And, Charlayne, if Jacob Zuma does win, what is likely to be the focus of his presidency?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Good question, Renee. And good morning to you. You know, Jacob Zuma is a wily politician. And he has the capacity to say different things to different audiences. Now, he has switched to capitalism while he was serving in government. He's reassured businessmen that he's not going to return to high tax redistribution.

But no one is exactly sure where he's going to take the economy. At the moment, the business community, which is dominated by the white businessmen, seem to be reassured by his promises to them. So that's going to be one major challenge. What is he going to do with the economy, especially in light of this global recession?

MONTAGNE: And also, for the average South African, big issues have been crime and AIDS. Are they still leading issues, things he's got to tackle?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, they've put a very good person in as the health minister, replacing the woman who said the best way to treat AIDS was with beetroot and garlic. Barbara Hogan is the new health person. Perhaps he'll keep her on. He hasn't said who exactly he's going to keep in his cabinet.

But I think AIDS will be a focus. I think the biggest problem he's going to face - at least this is what I've been hearing from all of the voters, no matter whom they voted for - is the lack of qualified people to ensure the delivery. And this has been one of the things that the opposition has harped on and want Jacob Zuma to change: cronyism, putting party friends and supporters in positions that they're not qualified for.

So that also, I think, is going to be his major challenge. People don't really care who's running the government. They want a house. They want water that runs. They want a toilet in their house, and, you know, the basic necessities.

Now the ANC has delivered to millions of people. But this is a country of 48-plus million people, and the majority of them still live in poverty.

MONTAGNE: Charlayne, the ANC clearly has a hold on most voters in South Africa. But for the first time this election, it had some serious opposition, and it appears to have lost to an opposition party in a province. How much of a blow is that?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, it may be a blow to the African National Congress, but most voters that I've talked to think it's very important for a young democracy, in particular, but any democracy to have a healthy opposition. And the Democratic Alliance, which seems to have steamed ahead and will remain as the official opposition, has really worked hard. They've been a predominantly white party supported by the coloreds who were treated better than blacks but were still discriminated against during apartheid.

But they have reached out to them. I was reading this morning that in Mitchells Plain, a township outside of Cape Town, the DA has really done well. And so if this party becomes more inclusive and it goes into coalition, or at least cooperation with the new party, the Congress of the People, then I think - and I think a lot of South Africans think - this is going to strengthen democracy, even it if upsets the ANC.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, Charlayne.

HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault, speaking to us from election center in Pretoria, South Africa.

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