South Africa's Election: Why It Matters

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South African presidential favorite Jacob Zuma (center) dances with Winnie Mandela (right), former wife of South African President Nelson Mandela (background), in Johannesburg at Ellis Park Stadium on April 19, 2009, at the final African National Congress election rally.

South Africa goes to the polls Wednesday in an election billed as the most important since Nelson Mandela led his nation to overthrow apartheid 15 years ago. How so, when the result — a landslide for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the election of its leader Jacob Zuma to the presidency — is barely in doubt? Here's TIME's quick question-and-answer guide to South Africa's general election: (Read "Why South Africa's Over The Rainbow.")

Will the ANC win easily?
Yes, or at least by a comfortable margin. Most opinion polls put its support between 60% and 70% of the popular vote. (It won 66% in 2004.) The lowest prediction gives the party 47% support. But even that figure would still make it by far South Africa's largest party. Its nearest rivals — the Democratic Alliance and the Congress of the People, which split from the ANC late last year — rarely score more than 15% each in any survey.

Does that mean Jacob Zuma will be President?
Almost certainly. He is the President of the ANC, and the national President is elected by Parliament, whose members, under a proportional-representation system, are allocated seats according to their party's share of Wednesday's vote.

If the result is almost assured, why so much interest?
Three reasons. First, South Africa is Africa's economic and political heavyweight. What happens in South Africa affects all Africa and is often seen as a weather vane for the continent. In particular, the ANC is the most prominent of Africa's liberation movements — the revolutionary parties that overthrew white or colonial rule. Its success or failure in adapting from the demands of fighting a revolutionary war to the demands of competing in a free and fair democracy — requiring less a transition than a total reinvention — has wide implications for Africa, even 15 years after it first took power.

Second, Jacob Zuma will be a controversial inheritor of Mandela's legacy. He faced charges of corruption for years in a case that was dropped in early April but may yet be revived. He was also once accused of rape, though acquitted after a high-profile court case. And whereas Mandela urged high-minded reconciliation and forgiveness in power, Zuma's appeal is populist and his supporters are regularly accused of inciting animosity or interfering in the institutions of state for their own political purposes. This all fits the pattern of a party whose moral authority has rapidly declined in the face of a series of scandals over corruption and incompetence, and the enrichment of a party-connected élite while millions continue to live in poverty.

Zuma, who portrays himself as an outsider, capitalized on that discontent to depose the previous leadership of the ANC and former President Thabo Mbeki. But not everyone is convinced. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for one, says he will not vote ANC this time around, saying it has betrayed the hope of the Mandela years.

Finally, the ANC's support has steadily declined since the heady days of the early 1990s. This election is billed as the most open since the end of apartheid — and perhaps the first in which the party's victory is not guaranteed — and that competition has naturally raised interest.

Is the outlook for South Africa that bleak?
It depends on your time frame. Zuma's checkered career, the behavior of his supporters and the contrast to the iconic Mandela inevitably reflect poorly on him and his party. His victory in deposing Mbeki was first and foremost an internal factional victory and, outside that ANC constituency, his election will not be viewed so positively, either for South Africa or all Africa.

But Zuma may surprise. Previous ANC administrations have failed to deliver on fighting inequality, violent crime, HIV/AIDS and reining in Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe, creating the opportunity for Zuma to do better. A lessening in ANC support would ultimately be good for the health of South African democracy, which has lacked a strong opposition since the end of apartheid. Finally, ANC Presidents are a creature of their party rather than the electorate, as Mbeki's removal showed. Should Zuma underperform and disappoint his supporters, he might expect the same fate — and before his official term is up.

Where does Mandela stand on Zuma?
The 90-year-old has largely stayed out of day-to-day politics since his retirement after one term in office in 1997, and ill health means he routinely declines all requests for interviews or comments these days. Mandela has occasionally — and often obliquely — chided his successors, particularly when the Mbeki-Zuma fight was at its height. But he has also made plain that his loyalty to the ANC remains unwavering, and during the latest campaign appeared twice with Zuma at election rallies, including a final mass rally at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg last Sunday.

When will the results be out?
South African law forbids the release of results within 48 hours of the polls closing, and mandates their release within a week. The best guess is Saturday or Sunday.

See pictures of violence in South Africa.