Mandela steals Zuma’s coronation

Nelson Mandela on Sunday proved he is still the giant of African politics when he made a surprise appearance at the African National Congress’s final campaign rally before Wednesday’s elections.

Tens of thousands of supporters shouted and sang as Mandela, wearing a shirt in the ANC’s green, gold and black colours — and emblazoned with the campaign slogan “Together we can do more” — was driven into Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium in a golf cart.

South Africa’s first black president was helped on to the stage by Jacob Zuma, the man set to become the fourth. Wearing a baseball cap, Mandela then took his seat and, smiling serenely, effortlessly upstaged the man whose coronation this was meant to be.

Too frail to stand during the national anthem or to make a speech, Mandela spoke in a short recorded message played on stadium TV screens. He said the “primary task” for the ANC is to “eradicate poverty and ensure a better life for all”. He did not mention Zuma by name.

In an emotional moment charged with a little wistfulness, the crowd then rose as one to sing, “Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela”, paying tribute to the retired statesman, now in his twilight years.

A record 400 000 people were estimated to be watching the Siyanqoba (Victory) rally in Ellis Park or on screens at the adjacent Johannesburg Stadium, and in stadiums in South Africa’s eight other provinces. The ANC looks certain to win but, in the most competitive election since the dawn of democracy 15 years ago, the party is fighting to retain its two-thirds majority.

The centrepiece of the event was the keynote address by ANC president Zuma, who paid tribute to Mandela as “the icon of this country”, thanking him for being a “president, father and statesman whose loyalty to the ANC we’ll never doubt”.

Zuma (67) in a black T-shirt, whipped up the crowd with a funky dance before his speech, and followed it with his signature song, Awulethu Umshini Wam. He told the crowds: “The 2009 election is indeed a defining moment for the ANC and the country. Only a few months ago pessimistic predictions were made for the ANC by those who claim to know best.

“But we’ve seen excitement about the ANC we’ve not witnessed since the release of our icon, Madiba [Mandela], and the 1994 elections.”

He insisted the “ANC brand” had never been so strong with young and old alike.

In a reference to persistent racial divisions in the country, he said: “We are firm that South Africa belongs to all of us, black and white, and working together we will ensure no South African feels less valued than any other because of their race or religion.”

Outside the stadium thousands of people had formed a river of gold as they waved Zuma flags and banners and sang party anthems as if on the way to a soccer match. Bikers revved their engines in support, and city Metro trains slowed to honk their horns.

The rally was a show of strength by the ANC, which dwarfed those of rival parties such as the Congress of the People (Cope). –

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