"BRING ME MY MACHINE GUN!" sings the next president of South Africa in a pleasing baritone, and as the audience joins in with the catchy tune, he intones more politely the second line of the song, "Please bring me my machine gun!" Nobody actually obliges. It is the thought that counts, and the thought is worrying.
We are at an election rally of the mighty African National Congress on the sports field of Springbok, a small, rather arid town. This is almost the top left corner of the Republic of South Africa, separated from the Europeanized tourist enclave of Cape Town by hundreds of miles of brooding mountains with occasional picturesque oases of modest comfort on the way. People do not come here unless they need to. The railroad stops a long way south, at the evocatively named settlement of Bitterfontein. The highway is so sparsely used that tortoises--a mainstay of the local wildlife--occasionally succeed in getting all the way across it. Many of the local people are Namaquas, a distinctive tribe, once nomadic, now mostly not, whose lovely high-boned features look almost Chinese.
In short, this is just round the corner from nowhere.
What is the leader of a party that currently holds 72 percent of the seats in South Africa's parliament doing in such a place? He will become president on April 22 whatever the people of Springbok do. The problem is that he fears a demoralizing snub from the voters and has good reason to. The Rainbow Nation inaugurated by Nelson Mandela is not living happily ever after, and he, Jacob Zuma, is not exactly a reassuring figure.
A breakaway party, the Congress of the People, has been doing surprisingly well here and so needs to be squashed. It will be. One of COPE's leading figures, Allan Boesak, told me that the ANC had wooed him to campaign for them. He said they assured him that money for the campaign would be readily available because they were receiving funds from Libya's Col. Muammar Gaddafi.
There is certainly cash to play with. People who turn up at the ANC rally are handed gifts of bananas and cans of cola, no small thing in a part of the world where many make their living from garbage-picking. Hundreds of people are wearing yellow T-shirts bearing Jacob Zuma's face. COPE's local officials--one says he left the ANC because he believes it has now been wholly taken over by Communists--claim that generous food parcels, supposedly government aid aimed at the poor, are being given only to ANC supporters. These grossly cynical tactics will work, even though the discontent is real. Even up here everyone has noticed that 15 years of majority rule have largely been wasted. Like almost every South African town, Springbok still has a relatively rich, mainly white part with a steakhouse, supermarkets, and hotels and an absolutely poor black part hidden behind one of the hills that stand all around. If the promises and hopes of "liberation" had been true, this would not be the case.
True, these days there are ways round and through the old barriers, and wealth now easily trumps skin color. The night I was there, white waitresses in the main restaurant were respectfully, even obsequiously, serving an opulent and confident party of well-dressed and powerful black Africans, probably politically connected. But most South African blacks are still very much on the bad side of the hill and likely to stay there.
It is not that nothing has been done. Comrade Zuma's motorcade--everyone is a comrade in the ANC, the last habitat of proper Stalinist politics outside the museum states of Cuba and North Korea--rolls through streets of neat new houses and past a modern high school before it bounces and jolts into a desperate zone of shacks and shanties. It parks outside the most wretched of them all, a structure mainly consisting of blue plastic sacks, whose tiny, crinkled 49-year-old occupant, Elizabeth Cloete, could easily be mistaken for 94. She makes about $10 a week scavenging through garbage for small saleable items. …