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Mandela Is ANC’s Most Potent Weapon

May 27, 1999

ELDORADO PARK, South Africa (AP) _ Nelson Mandela _ freedom fighter, political prisoner, beloved leader _ has taken on a new role: campaign juggernaut for the ruling African National Congress.

On a packed day of campaigning Wednesday, Mandela kissed babies and clutched hands in Eldorado Park, a Johannesburg township inhabited mainly by mixed-race Afrikaans-speakers.

The ANC is expected to dominate the vote in South Africa’s second democratic election, but faces stiff competition in some areas. In those places, like Eldorado Park, the party has brought out its main attraction: Mandela. South Africa’s mixed-race community, about 9 percent of the population, voted heavily in 1994 for the opposition National Party, which ran the country during apartheid.

Sharply stepping up the pace before next Wednesday’s national election, the 80-year-old president has traipsed through remote rural villages, been mobbed in Johannesburg’s townships and addressed stadiums packed with tens of thousands of supporters.

The hectic pace has taken a physical toll on Mandela, who is retiring when his term ends. By the end of the day, his voice is often hoarse and he has difficulty walking.

In the past two weeks, Mandela has traveled to the Eastern Cape, where the ANC faces a challenge from the newly formed United Democratic Movement. He has also sought to woo traditional chiefs, a key source of votes. He addressed white Afrikaners in a town outside Johannesburg on Tuesday. The previous day, he was in the Free State, a farming province.

Mandela started his campaigning Wednesday by having breakfast with prominent Indians. He had lunch with business executives in Pretoria, then flew to Eldorado Park by helicopter. He followed that with a rally for miners south of Johannesburg.

``If a man of 81 can do that, you should do 10 times that a day!″ he told the crowd in Eldorado Park.

Despite the tiring pace, Mandela seems to revel in campaigning, combining the regal bearing of his background as a member of the Xhosa people’s royal household with the common touch. He is empathetic and ready with a quip.

When the sound system failed during his speech, Mandela joked, ``I used to shout at the sheep to get them to come home,″ referring to his boyhood in the rural Transkei region. Although Mandela is retiring after the election, he is by no means a lame duck.

``His presence, his magnetism, is a valuable resource used by the ANC _ with his enthusiastic cooperation,″ said Sampie Terreblanche, a political scientist at the University of Stellenbosch in Cape Town.

Before speaking, Mandela walked around the rim of a shopping center greeting several hundred people. He wore a T-shirt saying ``Thabo Mbeki for President,″ with a picture of the deputy president _ his hand-picked successor.

Some shouted ``Madiba,″ Mandela’s clan name and a term of affection. As security agents tried to clear a path, he stopped at the Willow Bar and Restaurant, which was gutted by a fire Thursday. With his head bent down attentively, consoled owner Marjorie Amod. ``I’m sorry,″ he said, putting his arm around her shoulder.

In his speeches, Mandela generally lauds the ANC’s accomplishments and says no party in South Africa’s history has done as much for blacks. When speaking to white audiences, he urges them to break with the past and unite with the black majority.

In Eldorado Park, he took note of prominent mixed-race officials in government, and of government funding for centers in mixed-race communities. Many in the crowd were not persuaded.

``With the whites in power, we were on the outside looking in. With the blacks, it’s worse,″ said Iris Waterson, 64. ``I’m not going to vote.″

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