South Africa's fourth democratic election is expected to witness a record voter turnout and the return of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party to power.
Opposition parties concede that they will remain in opposition after the 22 April poll, but have made much of their running on preventing the ANC and its president, Jacob Zuma, from achieving the two-thirds majority that would allow changes to the country's constitution. Recent polls indicate that a two-thirds majority for the ANC is too close to call.
The Independent Electoral Commission expects that 80 percent of the more than 23 million registered voters will cast their ballots, many of them young, first-time voters.
Zuma is expected to become post-apartheid South Africa's fourth president, but the scandals that have coalesced around him - he was acquitted of rape in 2006, and a plethora of corruption and other charges were dropped a few weeks ahead of the 2009 poll - have served to eclipse the real socio-economic issues facing the country.
During his time as ANC president Zuma has not strayed from his party's policies, although off-the-cuff remarks have roused controversy: he voiced his disgust for gays in Zulu, his mother tongue, for which he later apologized; he suggested that pregnant teenage girls be isolated, a practice employed in the ANC's military camps during the struggle against apartheid.
After 15 years of ANC rule, analysts say the gap between rich and poor has widened, education is in disarray, unemployment endemic, and crime rampant - long awaited crime figures were not released ahead of the poll - access to health care is poor and the alleviation of poverty is still as urgent as it was in 1994 when the party came to power.
The ANC is promising a publicly funded national health insurance scheme, but the source of finance remains opaque. It says it will increase teacher numbers - although previous ANC administrations closed down teacher training colleges - and ensure that 30 percent of the land is redistributed to black ownership by 2014. The past three ANC governments have only managed to redistribute 5.5 percent of land since 1994.
While the ANC is expected to romp to its fourth election victory amid claims of offering food parcels for votes, denying opposition parties equal access to the public broadcaster, and disrupting the political meetings of opposition parties, the gravest threat to South Africa's democracy is maintaining the status quo on the non-regulation of party funding.
Party funding undermining democracy
Lance Greyling, of the opposition Independent Democrats (ID), told IRIN: "The biggest issue for our democracy is the regulation of party funding."
The ANC has disclosed that the 2009 election campaign was run on a war chest of R200 million (US$22 million), but Greyling said it was "probably far more", as donations to the party were secret. The ID's election campaign was run on R6 million (US$650,000), he said, and the party promoted funding transparency.
Greyling said the biggest scandals of post-apartheid South Africa were all related to party funding: Oilgate - where money was siphoned from the state's oil procurement company to the ANC coffers; and the arms deal - which led to charges of corruption, fraud and racketeering being levelled against Zuma, and the killing of mining magnate Brett Kebble.
Under current South African legislation, donations to political parties do not have to be disclosed, and there is no ban on foreign funding for parties.
Public funding is allocated as a reflection of voter support and is disclosed. As the largest party, the ANC receives about 70 percent of public funds and the remainder is divided up among the opposition parties.
|The relationship between money and politics may well be the biggest threat to democracy in South Africa ... There are a great many politicians in this country beholden to private money, and that's a problem|
"The relationship between money and politics may well be the biggest threat to democracy in South Africa ... There are a great many politicians in this country beholden to private money, and that's a problem," said Steven Friedman, director of the centre for democracy at the University of Johannesburg, at a recent debate hosted by the Helen Suzman Foundation.
"The problem is [private funding means] public decisions are taken for reasons other than those the majority of citizens would like to see," he commented.
Among the scandals the ANC has weathered during its election campaign were the revelation that the extravagant tastes of party spokesman Carl Niehaus had had embroiled him in millions of rand of debt, and the refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a visa to attend a peace conference of Nobel laureates in South Africa.
The Dalai Lama and political funding
After the ANC assumed government in 1994, the party's finances quickly ran into difficulties, leading it to sell its Johannesburg headquarters and retrench party workers, a far cry from the cash-flush election campaign in 2009.
According to the ANC breakaway party, the Congress of the People, the ANC has received financial support for its election campaign from China's ruling Communist Party.
The ANC has refused to disclose whether it received money from foreign or any other donors, a response is permitted by law.
Hennie van Vuuren, of the corruption and governance unit at the Institute for Security Studies, a Pretoria-based think-tank, said at the Helen Suzman debate: "We know [that] the week before this happened [refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a visa], the China-Africa forum took place.
"We know that Matthews Phosa [ANC treasurer-general] was described by some to be the star of the show at that meeting, and one does wonder why, sitting next to the deputy South African minister of trade and industry, leading the South African delegation, we have the ANC treasurer-general," he said.
Political analyst James Myburgh commented: "The obvious question is whether this underpinned the government's inexplicable decision to refuse the Dalai Lama a visa."
Citing research by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Myburgh said foreign funding was banned in 40 of the 111 countries surveyed.
Among the countries banning foreign funding were Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Honduras, Iceland, Japan, Latvia, Mexico, Portugal, Russia, Senegal, Thailand and the United Kingdom.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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