Regardless of how heated the political climate gets in South Africa these days, whites here can still observe their country's democratic growing pains from the best seats in the house.

In this case, that would be all but a few of the 500 cushioned chairs in a lecture hall at Stellenbosch University, in the picturesque Jonkershoek valley not far from Cape Town.

As a political staging point, Stellenbosch is an unusual venue, given the university's long association with the autocratic, former apartheid regime. 

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ANC's young firebrand, Julius Malema (in green shirt) at a rally in Mitchell's Plain township in Cape Town. (Bruce Edwards/CBC)

But now, on the verge of the country's fourth fully democratic election since the fall of apartheid — 15 years after the African National Congress took power — Stellenbosch is overrun with placard-wielding young people from the ANC and its rival, the newly formed Congress of the People (COPE), two black parties vying to win the support of the children of South Africa's once privileged white elite. 

This evening, on either side of the university hall, the two rowdy political rivals face each other across the auditorium, chanting slogans.

For many of the students here, it will be as close as they've ever come to the intensity of the political rallies that are so common in the poverty stricken black townships, where half the population still lives.

"It was quite chaotic and I actually felt quite scared," allows Peter Oodendaal, a 19-year-old freshman.

ANC firebrand

What drew people to this debate, Oodendaal says, was the prospect of seeing ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, who shot to fame by expressing his undying support for the ANC's presidential candidate, Jacob Zuma, by saying: "We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma."

Malema, 28, pulled out of the debate at the last moment, claiming the other youth leaders at this gathering were too marginal for his presence. But during an appearance on a local radio call-in show, he said the ANC needs almost military protection in this election, mostly from those he describes as treasonous former ANC members who formed COPE.

"Today we need this militancy more than ever before to defend the revolution itself because it's under serious attack," Malema said, raising the spectre of partisan violence that seems to be just below the surface these days.

Many young black South Africans support Malema in his efforts to quash any threat to the party that freed them from the grip of apartheid.

One caller named Thabo said Malema represents traditional ANC values that were aimed at pulling them from poverty. "You are a super leader," he told Malema. "We don't want you to be like this new party. They don't like affirmative action or black empowerment."

Enter COPE

COPE is the new entrant in this election, a potential spoiler that is the by-product of a long running feud between former South Africa president Thabo Mbeki and his faction on one side and Jacob Zuma and his faction on the other.

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COPE supporters, former ANC members, trample the ANC flag. (Courtesy Jesper Strudsholm)

  

In the language of street-level politics here, Mbeki was accused of serving the rich and ignoring the poor, while Zuma is very much a man of the people with long roots in both the ANC and the South African Communist party.

After beating Mbeki at a leadership conference in December 2007, Zuma became head of the ANC and his supporters eventually forced Mbeki to step down early from the country's presidency last year.

Although Mbeki still remains a member of the ANC, several members of his cabinet tore up their membership cards and formed COPE. 

The new party claims the ANC has become a corrupt organization led by a morally compromised Zuma, who had been charged with fraud and corruption in a case that dragged on for nearly five years. The charges were dropped earlier this month, just weeks before the April 22 vote.

Issue one: the freedom struggle

In the three previous elections, ANC support has never fallen below 62 per cent and no one really expects Zuma to lose this time out either. But COPE's attacks could eat into the ANC lead and, at the very least, ensure Zuma doesn't achieve the two-thirds control of the legislature that would allow him to change the country's constitution should he so choose.

For its part, the ANC is depicting COPE as a group of counter-revolutionaries and a disgrace to those who fought in the freedom struggle.

But many voters today are too young to remember the struggle against apartheid, hence the pitch for votes in places like Stellenbosch and the potential potency of charges of political corruption in a county that is enmeshed in squalor and crime.

As people stream out of the lecture hall at Stellenbosch, ANC and COPE supporters face off. They battle to sing their respective slogans the loudest and menacingly poke their placards at each other.

The ANC has been virtually uncontested among black voters since the end of apartheid and the party's diehard supporters are openly hostile towards the emergence of COPE.

But Vokil Encayu, a black teacher and former ANC supporter, says the competition is healthy. "With COPE emerging, the youth are now interested," he says, "more than they've been since 1994."

The ANC slogan for the past 15 years — "A better life for all" — has clearly fallen short, he suggests. More than 20 million people continue to live below the poverty line and unemployment hovers around 30 per cent.

COPE's emergence has led white students like Peter Oodendaal, who under normal circumstances would vote for the predominantly white Democratic Alliance, to consider his options.

Oodendaal says the changing political landscape is encouraging young people to take a stance. "We do carry this burden with us of the past. But being all apathetic about it will not solve anything. So I'm excited about people starting to get involved in changing South Africa."