NAIROBI, Kenya, Apr 22 – South Africans go to the polls on Wednesday to elect a new President and their top diplomat in Nairobi says a change in guard is not likely to alter that country’s relations with Kenya.
High Commissioner Tony Msimanga said if controversial presidential front runner Jacob Zuma wins the poll, all diplomats will implement the policies of his party the African National Congress (ANC).
“In South Africa when we go to elections we don’t vote for individuals, we vote for parties. But I guess individual candidates count a lot because of what they do and how they appeals to the masses. It’s not his policies… its ANC policies,” the envoy said.
“ANC is one of the oldest parties on the continent. It is well entrenched in the masses. It also has the struggle credentials. ANC brought about the demise of apartheid so people can relate to that and hence the popularity of Zuma,” Mr Msimanga told Capital News at SA High Commission’s offices in Nairobi.
All 19,726 polling stations were due to open at 0700 GMT on Wednesday. Researchers predict Mr Zuma’s ANC will take 67 percent of the vote, making him a shoo-in for president when parliament meets in early May to elect a new head of state.
The 67-year-old former anti-apartheid activist is an icon in his country with a kind of rags to riches story that endears him to poor countrymen. While revered by the lowly, he is distrusted by the middle class because of his tainted image and fears over strong ties to the ANC’s leftist partners.
But the envoy argued: “You can’t be rigid with polices. Even if they are good you have to review them. In terms of the relations with the continent, nothing is going to change.”
Mr Zuma told reporters at a final pre-election media briefing in South Africa on Tuesday he was confident of a "huge and decisive mandate" and moved to dispel doubts about his integrity after graft charges against him were dropped only two weeks ago.
Prosecutors argued that political meddling had compromised the legal case against Mr Zuma, but insisted they remained confident of the case against him. The South African diplomat said Mr Zuma was seen at home as a victim of dirty politics.
“Now that the corruption charges have been dropped, and with what has been exposed, it is quite worrying. It shows there was political interference. When (ex) President Mbeki decided to release him from his duties as Deputy President, people though that was very harsh. I guess people could relate to him (Zuma) because of his humble background. These are some of his strong points,” he explained.
Election authorities expect a record turnout, with more than 23 million people registered to vote.
Mr Zuma received a major endorsement when 90-year-old former President Nelson Mandela made a rare public appearance at a mass rally in Johannesburg at the weekend.
In Nairobi, Msimanga said that a new ANC government under Mr Zuma would only look to improve matters party members perceived as derailed by ex-President Thabo Mbeki.
Mr Msimanga said: “One area we could strengthen is peace efforts. People want us to go into Somalia but we are overstretched. But one area that we can look at is the piracy problem. That area is getting our attention. Because we can’t have foreign armies patrolling the waters of Kenya while no one from the continent is there.”
“The details will emerge after the elections but it may entail sending some of our ships to assist.”
But the relationships between Kenya and South Africa have largely been perceived as icy. There is the feeling the South Africans have undermined the Kenyan market and attempted to bulldoze their way in. And Kenyans were looking to see whether an expected Zuma administration would embody the character of the man his countrymen view as humble.
Mr Msimanga admitted to Capital News that trade between the two countries has been stifled by incorrect assumptions by SA businessmen.
Major firms like Castle Larger, Inscor foods and Nu Metro which came into Kenya at the turn of the millennium, found it difficult to penetrate the local market. Most were grudgingly forced to partner with local players to gain the support of Kenyans.
“Kenyan businessmen say Kenya is very competitive. But I guess some of the SA companies that came into Kenya really made some mistakes. Whenever you go into a foreign country you need to bring the locals on board you can’t go it alone. The locals can sabotage you. The ones who have partnered with Kenyans are thriving,” he said.