Just days ahead of his near-certain victory in South Africa’s elections, Jacob Zuma on Sunday pledged radical social improvements for the poor and said that the governing African National Congress would uphold the independence of the country’s judiciary.

A packed 60,000-seat rugby stadium in Johannesburg was electrified by the surprise appearance of Nelson Mandela, the legendary but now frail 90-year-old leader of the anti-apartheid struggle.

The presence of Mr Mandela, who has retired from active politics and took a full five minutes to climb the short stairway to the stage, will further strengthen Mr Zuma’s position within the ruling party following a damaging split 18 months ago. 

Mr Zuma said that the ANC had defied “pessimistic predictions” about its future with an “exuberant campaign”. Leaders of the party that has governed since the end of white rule in 1994 say they are confident of repeating the two-thirds majority they won five years ago. 

Opinion polls have shown that a new opposition party – the Congress of the People, formed when Mr Zuma’s supporters forced Thabo Mbeki, the former president, to resign last September – has failed to galvanise significant support and is expected to win only about 10 per cent of the votes on Wednesday. 

A smiling Mr Mandela, clad in yellow ANC T-shirt, looked on as Mr Zuma whipped up the crowd, dancing to the ANC’s campaign song and then singing “Bring Me My Machine Gun”, the raucous resistance hymn that is Mr Zuma’s anthem.

Mr Zuma sought to ease worries that he may move to centralise power by promising to defend South Africa’s constitution and insisting that he did not want to “infringe on the independence” of the judiciary.

His reputation has been damaged by corruption allegations, which linger in spite of a decision two weeks ago by state prosecutors to drop charges against him. Mr Zuma had then triggered anxiety by attacking the country’s top judges for behaving “like gods”.

Judging by the mood of Sunday’s crowd, however, ANC supporters are more concerned about bread-and-butter issues.

The focus of Mr Mandela’s short recorded message – shown on the stadium’s huge screens – was “for the ANC to remember that its primary task [was] to eradicate poverty and ensure a better life for all”. Mr Zuma devoted the bulk of his speech to social issues.

One of the loudest cheers of the day rang out when Sidumo Dlamini, president of the trade union federation that is an integral pillar of Mr Zuma’s support, said: “The ANC will ensure that labour-broking agreements” – casual work arrangements that bypass trade unions – “never happen in the country again.”

Those expectations, encouraged by Mr Zuma and his allies, are now dizzyingly high.

“We have a shortage of housing, shortage of toilets and no electricity. Zuma will change a lot of things,” said Eunice Ximba, a 48-year-old trader from Freedom Park near Pretoria. “Real leaders don’t need to go to university, just look at Jesus Christ. Zuma is like that. He would die for us.”

But even as traditional healers burned herbs to call on Mr Zuma’s ancestors to guide him in leadership, there are indications that the frustrations could grow quickly if Mr Zuma fails to deliver.

Golden Miles Phudu, 48, from Eldorado Park near the vast township of Soweto, wore heavy chains around his bare chest and shoulders. “We are 15 years down the road [from 1994’s first democratic elections]. This country is stinking rich but the majority of our people remain in abject poverty.”

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