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A frail, 90-year-old Nelson Mandela struggled to the stage Sunday at the ANC’s last rally before South Africa’s election, making a surprise appearance to the cheers of 100,000 supporters while countrymen watched on national TV.

He wore a T-short emblazoned with the face of Jacob Zuma, the party’s popular presidential candidate who drew almost as mighty a cheer from the fans gathered in central Johannesburg days before Wednesday’s parliamentary elections.

Mandela began his visit with a drive around a field in a golf cart with Zuma at his side. Then Mandela was helped onto the stage, where he was seated next to former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, one of the ANC’s most popular leaders.

Mandela did not address the crowd but listened as a brief video message he had recorded earlier was shown on a giant screen.

In his message, Mandela said the ANC was best placed to lead South Africans in “our primary task” of eradicating poverty and improving the lives of a black majority neglected under apartheid and still far behind whites and an emerging, tiny black elite.

Mandela looked in strong spirits and smiled and waved to the crowd.

It was only the second appearance of this campaign for Mandela, who has largely retired from public life. But no one has doubted his loyalty to the party that South Africans embrace for defeating apartheid, and building homes and creating jobs since it won power in the first all-race vote in 1994.

Mandela, who was jailed for 27 years for his opposition to apartheid, served one term as the nation’s president, from 1994 to 1999. The constitution allows two, but he stepped aside for younger leaders and to focus on fighting AIDS and supporting international peacemaking efforts.

The theme of the rally, “We are winning,” reflected the party’s optimism. Members of parliament elect the president, and considering the ANC’s overwhelming popularity, Zuma, 67, is virtually assured of becoming president.

Some say the former guerrilla is the country’s most popular leader since Mandela.

Walter Kwatsi, a 33-year-old supermarket worker who carried a handmade poster comparing Zuma to President Barack Obama, was among the millions of poor South Africans who believe the ANC leader will bring much-wanted improvements to their lives.

“All the people love Jacob Zuma,” Kwatsi said Sunday. “He’s the man who’s going to deliver — deliver water, electricity, houses, jobs, everything.”

Old ladies in starched outfits in the ANC colors of green, gold and black joined skimpily clad women — also in the party colors — Sunday. Young men and women brought a touch of bling with their glitter-encrusted T-shirts reading “Young, Gifted and ANC.”

The ANC launched its campaign with promises of massive public spending to create jobs. It has pulled back on such rhetoric in the face of the global economic downturn, and Zuma on Sunday stressed the modest goal of keeping job losses in check. But Zuma also promised investment in transportation, education and health care to build a base for growth “once the recovery begins.”

Zuma, who joined the ANC in 1959, was jailed for 10 years on Robben Island, alongside Mandela and other heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. He also spent 15 years in exile.

He was appointed deputy president in 1999 by then-President Thabo Mbeki who fired him in 2005, when Zuma was implicated in the corruption trial of a close friend and financial adviser.

Prosecutors announced earlier this month they would not pursue a separate corruption case against Zuma because of procedural problems, though they said they still believed they had a strong case. In 2006, Zuma was acquitted of rape accusations.

Zuma’s populist touch contrasts with Mbeki’s aloofness.

Some of the most enthusiastic cheers Zuma received Sunday followed his promise to “do things differently” in a new administration.

“We have seen excitement about the ANC that we have not witnessed since the release of Madiba and the 1994 elections,” he said, referring to Mandela by his clan name.