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Gary Younge
ANC under siege in liberation's heartland

Two firebrands, separate in their political allegiances, but equal in their reliance on personality politics. As the battle intensifies for the province of the Eastern Cape in South Africa's general election on Wednesday, the outcome is becoming increasingly dependent on this pair of mavericks.

Both have fallen out publicly with the leadership of the African National Congress, both were sacked by President Nelson Mandela, from their posts as deputy ministers.

But one, Mrs Mandela, formerly deputy minister for arts, stayed in the ANC while the other, Mr Holomisa, left and set up a breakaway party, the UDM. While they were dissidents within the ANC they remained close. Now they are at loggerheads.

The battle for the Eastern Cape - which includes the former homelands of Transkei and Ciskei - is more than just a regional sideshow. How the UDM fares is the only electoral indicator - aside from voter turnout - of the degree of disaffection with the ANC.

The only party, apart from the UDM, that claims a base among black South Africans is the Pan-Africanist Congress, and its support has been declining. Polls show the UDM boasts anything from 5% to as much as 12% support in the area, where it has recruited a number of traditional leaders. If something like the 12% level materialises in votes, this would give the UDM a regional stepping stone for a national challenge to the ruling party.

The UDM, which predominantly comprises former ANC activists, is keen to present itself as the official opposition - a bid taken seriously enough by the ANC for it to send one of its most popular members, Mrs Mandela, to campaign in the region in order to rally the disillusioned.

She went reluctantly, and continually frustrated regional ANC officials by changing her schedules, failing to turn up to some events and then leaving early.

For their part, ANC activists have resorted to cruder methods to challenge the UDM. Earlier this week they broke up a meeting which Mr Holomisa was addressing at the university of Fort Hare. UDM activists have responded with a veiled threat that they are prepared to resort to violence if the ANC strikes again.

"They will see who we are and what we can do," says Gogo Mapalande, who runs the UDM in Transkei. "They claim they are for democracy but they do not like to be challenged democratically."

Mandela's birthplace

With its sun-dried plains and lush hills, peppered with small homesteads of earth and wicker huts, Transkei also holds great symbolic importance for the ANC. As the birthplace of both the president, Nelson Mandela, and his heir apparent, Thabo Mbeki - as well as of Mr Mandela's former prison mate, Walter Sisulu - it is regarded as the cradle of the anti-apartheid liberation movement. It is also the base of Mr Holomisa, a former deputy minister for the environment, who under apartheid had run Transkei when it was a homeland - the name given to black reservations which were notionally self-governing.

Mr Holomisa was expelled from his ministerial post after making allegations of corruption against the ANC. In 1997, along with a former National Party MP, Roelf Meyer, he formed the UDM, and now accuses the ANC of being riddled with nepotism, guilty of despotism and failing to deliver on the promises it made in the country's first post-apartheid election in 1994.

"They have abandoned their original agenda," says Mr Holomisa. "The past five years have been characterised by greed and corruption. Their programme for economic improvement has not been benefiting those who supported them."

It is an alluring message to the 200-strong crowd who have come to see him in the tiny Eastern Cape village of Upper Malepele. From the moment his helicopter started circling the hillside he had them entranced; the sound of women ululating and children cheering was a match for the whirring of the blades.

No running water

Living about eight miles up a dirt track from the nearest tarmac road, the people of this hamlet have yet to see electricity or running water under the government's reconstruction and development programme.

"There are no jobs and there has been no change," says Sipho Daka, who voted ANC in 1994 but is thinking of voting for the UDM this week. "I was a mineworker but I have not worked since 1985 and I have five children to support. I want to know if Mr Holomisa will open up the mines."

Herein lies the UDM's problem. The obvious answer to Mr Daka's question is that no one will reopen the mines because they have already been either closed, automated or deemed uneconomic. The UDM is more clearly defined by what it is not - the ANC - than what it stands for itself.

Many of the UDM's criticisms of the ANC's failure to improve the economic lot of society's poorest are valid, but it offers no coherent alternative. Its most distinctive policies are calls for referendums on the death penalty and abortion.

At the village of Qunu, where Mr Mandela was born, Mr Mbeki's face smiles down from ANC posters, while small tufts of smoke rise from cooking pots outside huts. Here, electricity did come last year, and water is coming next year.

"Everybody here is for the ANC," says Eddie, wearing wellington boots and planting trees. "They [the UDM] want more power for themselves but could not get it through the government. But they won't get it outside the ANC either."

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