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geoffrey york

It was an odd comment by one of the most powerful men in South Africa's ruling party. Make sure to vote, he told an unemployed black woman, or else "the Boers" will bring back apartheid.

Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of the ruling African National Congress, has refused to apologize for the racial comment, which sparked a furor across the country. But it might be a foreshadowing of worse to come. With a crucial election looming in the next few months, there are growing risks of racial tensions and even sporadic violence in the politicking here.

Mr. Ramaphosa's scare tactic was, of course, a false one. There is zero chance of a return to apartheid in a country where even the white-supremacist fringe has faded into obscurity. Yet as long as the fear can be whipped up, the ANC has a better chance of mobilizing votes and winning another landslide victory.

The ANC's youth wing has already clashed violently with a new radical rival, the Economic Freedom Fighters, led by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, who gained notoriety in the past by singing "Shoot the Boer" at political rallies. The new party's manifesto calls for the state to seize white-owned farmland and mining companies, in a Zimbabwe-style confiscation campaign, and the party often uses the white minority as a scapegoat for South Africa's economic woes.

Mr. Malema, whose supporters wear revolutionary berets in the style of Che Guevara, launched his party with an official rally at Marikana, where 34 protestors were killed by police last year. Slogans displayed at the rally had inflammatory messages. "Honeymoon is over for whites," said one. Another sign, quoting Che Guevara, said: "A revolutionary must become a cold killing machine, motivated by pure hate."

The party later disavowed those slogans, but Mr. Malema routinely blames "whites" for the country's problems. He claims that President Jacob Zuma booted him out of the ANC "because people said to him, 'Remove Malema and the white people will be happy.'"

The EFF is likely to win only a few percentage points in the election next year – hardly a threat to the ANC, which normally wins close to two-thirds of the vote – but it will almost certainly win seats in parliament, giving it a platform to continue its racial campaigns.

The ANC, too, has resorted to similar tactics. The leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is led by a white woman, Helen Zille, and the ANC has relentlessly used this fact to portray the DA as a "racist" and white-dominated party.

At several campaign events this year, ANC supporters have used rock-throwing and other violent tactics to intimidate members of the DA and another opposition party, Agang, led by businesswoman Mamphela Ramphele. In a formal statement to South Africa's electoral commission, Ms. Ramphele's party has complained of "incidents of intimidation, the denial of access to public buildings and disruption of meetings by ANC members across the country."

South Africa has rightly won plaudits around the world for its post-apartheid racial reconciliation and its miracle of avoiding civil war in the bumpy transition from apartheid to democracy. It has laid claim to moral-beacon status with its progressive constitution, its impressive voting record at elections, and its reconciliation policies under Nelson Mandela in the 1990s.

But despite Mr. Mandela's extraordinary successes as a healer of conflict, the danger of race-baiting and political violence has always lurked beneath the surface here, a constant threat that occasionally bursts into full view.

Politics, of course, was intimately intertwined with bloodshed and racial conflict in South Africa's colonial and apartheid eras. They were essential tools for suppressing the black majority for centuries before the arrival of democracy in 1994.

With this tainted legacy, it would be unrealistic to expect violence and race to disappear completely from the political landscape. But it is worrisome that some members of the ANC and Mr. Malema's EFF party are willing to use intolerance as a tactic again.

The approaching election, expected in May or June of next year, will be a key test of whether South Africa can survive the mounting tensions over social inequality and high unemployment without any flare-ups of violence and racial conflict.

The ANC under Mr. Zuma is certain to win the election, but its margin of victory could be eroded by recent scandals and the emergence of new political rivals. A declining vote total would be a humiliation, and the ANC is desperately trying to avoid it.

The election will be held in a historic year: the 20th anniversary of the fall of apartheid. Expect the ANC to make full use of the image of Nelson Mandela, who remains in critical condition at his home in Johannesburg. His name will be constantly invoked by ANC leaders as a reminder of Mr. Mandela's heroic victory over his apartheid oppressors.

The irony is that this election could see the resurgence of racial tactics that Mr. Mandela himself has consistently opposed.