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Jacob Zuma swept into power as South Africa’s fourth post-apartheid president last night, but was facing a formidable challenge of uniting his country behind him.With around 12.2m votes counted, the African National Congress (ANC) was narrowly ahead of the two-thirds majority it needs for the parliamentary freedom to rule unrestrained, and a celebratory rally thronged the streets of Johannesburg last night.


“The people have spoken with their vote,” Zuma told the crowds, switching from English to Zulu to Sotho. “We are not reading newspapers. We are talking to the people. We are not yet celebrating victory. The counting is still going on. The real celebration is on its way.”


But then a bottle of champagne, and a giant replica bottle, were produced on stage and a blizzard of confetti unleashed, as the man treated the crowd to another rendition of his signature tune, “Umshini Wam”, meaning “Bring me my machine gun”.


Yet the impression of Zuma as a polarizing figure has been reinforced by an unexpectedly strong showing by the Democratic Alliance (DA), whose voters are largely white or of mixed race. Zuma, 67, who will be South Africa’s first Zulu president, scored heavily in the tribe’s traditional heartland of KwaZulu-Natal. But the ANC looked likely to lose control of the Western Cape to the DA.


“I think a lot of people have voted for the ANC reluctantly,” Steven Friedman, a political academic, said. “Zuma will take office having to deal with a skeptical electorate and will be judged on how far he goes to allay skepticism and show that politicians care more about the people than looking after themselves.”


The ANC had accumulated 8.2m votes by last night compared with 1.9m for the DA (16%), and 939,000 (7.7%) for the ANC splinter group the Congress of the People (Cope). It was a bad day for one of the veterans of South African politics, 80-year-old Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose Inkatha Freedom party was marooned on 4%.


The ANC, which has governed South Africa since the first post-apartheid election in 1994, was down from its 69.69% share five years ago to 66.4%.


Zuma will be sworn in as president in Pretoria on 9 May and can expect close scrutiny of his inauguration speech. Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC MP turned critic of the party, said: “What he will do is make overtures to minority groups who didn’t vote for the ANC.”


Experts predict that Zuma will tread carefully in his first 100 days, seeking to reassure the financial markets and show continuity in policy.


Among his first tasks will be to select a cabinet. There is speculation that he will reward those who helped him win the presidency, including communists and trade unionists. Feinstein said: “He’ll use his cabinet announcement to send a message. I think it’s going to be a mixed cabinet, rewarding some close confidants with jobs and including some competent people as well.”


Feinstein said in his opinion it was a “worrying sign” that those in contention include Zuma allies Blade Nzimande, the general secretary of the Communist party, and General Siphiwe Nyanda, former chief of the national defense force.


Other contenders for cabinet posts include Zweli Mkhize, the ANC chairman in Zuma’s home province, Lindiwe Sisulu, touted as a possible foreign minister, and Jeremy Cronin, a member of the Communist party. There is speculation about whether Trevor Manuel will remain in his post as finance minister, providing stability in the face of global recession and a conservative voice in the cabinet.


Zuma has attempted to soothe investor concerns by promising that he will not veer to the left. But fears persist that, with a two-thirds majority, he might be tempted to amend the constitution, despite his assurances to the contrary.


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