Nelson Mandela smiles on candidate Jacob Zuma


Nelson Mandela’s hobbling steps up to the stage at an African National Congress election rally Sunday were painfully slow, but they were a powerful political boost to president-in-waiting Jacob Zuma.

The crowd at the ruling ANC’s final rally before general elections Wednesday was ecstatic when Mandela -- known here as Madiba -- made an unannounced visit, circling the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg on a golf cart with Zuma at his side.

Mandela’s beaming face was a handsome endorsement for Zuma, whose campaign to be president has been hampered by charges of corruption, fraud and racketeering.


Prosecutors dropped their case two weeks ago, citing outside interference over the timing of the charges. But they made it clear that they had a strong case.

Zuma has denied that the charges have left a cloud over him. That claim had more traction after Mandela’s endorsement. Zuma told the crowd that Mandela, 90, had not been pressured to attend.

“Let me clarify this issue for those who are very fond of commenting about things,” Zuma said. He said Mandela asked to appear with him at Sunday’s Siyanqoba (“We Are Winning”) rally and at a February gathering in Eastern Cape province.

The assertion was aimed at critics who have accused the Zuma camp of using the ANC’s elder statesman for electoral gain. Mandela rarely enters the political fray and concentrates mainly on charitable work, in particular his foundation for children affected by HIV and AIDS.

The crowd at Ellis Park was colored in broad stripes of yellow, with thousands in give-away yellow ANC T-shirts emblazoned with the image of Zuma’s face. There were hard hats with deafening horns attached and cotton wraps with Mandela’s image.

The roads around the stadium were clogged with traffic and exuberant pedestrians. Open-topped cars blared Zuma’s theme song, “Bring Me My Machine Gun.” BMWs and Mercedes plastered with ANC stickers nosed through the bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Mandela did not speak, but a brief recorded message said the role of the ANC was to fight poverty and build an inclusive, nonracial society.

Zuma’s rally speech offered promises of a better life without touching on costs or other details. He promised improvements in education and health and to reduce crime.

He called on doctors, nurses, patients and others to “join us in building a sustainable and affordable health system.” He urged police, judges and citizens to “join us in the fight against crime.”

Beyond the promises of a better life, Zuma hinted at retribution against judges and the news media. In the eight-year corruption scandal that has dogged Zuma, his faction in the ANC has come to see them as the enemy.

He said the judiciary and news media must be “transformed,” a suggestion that they were white-dominated or racist. In South Africa, such transformation policies generally aim to eradicate racism and empower blacks.