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South Africa's many small parties highlight vibrant democracy

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Elmond Jiyane/GCIS - Government Communication and Information System/Reuters

(Read caption) Former South African President Nelson Mandela (r.) is assisted by his granddaughter Ndileka Mandela (c.) and an IEC official as he casts his vote ahead of the May 18 elections, at his home in Houghton on May 16. South Africa will hold municipal elections nationwide on Wednesday in a vote seen as a gauge of support for President Jacob Zuma and his ruling African National Congress.

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Sure, the long-ruling African National Congress (ANC) – the vaunted party of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela – is set to win yet another big victory in South Africa's municipal elections today. But don't take that as a sign that South African politics is moribund.

There's a party campaigning for the legalization of cannabis, another promoting the abolition of income tax, and a political movement calling for the full independence of the Western Cape from South Africa.

Indeed, the fringe world of South African politics is alive and well. And analysts say the variety and number of parties – 121 in total – who've registered is a good indication of the strength of South Africa’s 17-year-old multi-party democratic credentials.

“After 1994 we had the towering figure of Nelson Mandela driving us on but now it’s clear that there are different levels of democracy based on cultural, regional, language, and local issues," says Peter Vale, a professor of politics at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. “We’re moving away from that African default position endorsed by [former President] Thabo Mbeki of the one-party answer to all problems, which we’ve seen in Zimbabwe. We have all different types of parties including the Monster Raving Loony-type parties which won’t win, but are competing for votes. I think that represents a healthy democratic culture.”

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