President Thabo Mbeki ended a whirlwind tour of KwaZulu-Natal by calling for peaceful elections.
Mbeki had criss-crossed the province over the past three days, travelling into deep rural areas like Tugela Ferry in the midlands and Mahlabathini in northern KwaZulu-Natal — Inkatha Freedom Party stronghold.
The President held five imbizos and a stakeholders meeting where ordinary people had the opportunity to voice concerns and air questions.
Ending the tour in Gamalakhe on the South Coast on Saturday afternoon, Mbeki said that there were people who would instigate violence to gain power. "You must not get disturbed by people who think the lives of others don't matter."
He warned that the police and the Intelligence Ministry were keeping "their ears to the ground" for any sign of trouble.
Mbeki also warned people against defacing elections posters. "Some people think they can do it at night and they will get away with it. They wont get away with it."
Several African National Congress billboards bearing Mbeki's photograph had been covered with white paint in Newcastle.
Mbeki said it was clear that people wanted peaceful elections. "We want peaceful elections. Let people choose whichever party they want."
He also said all South Africans should ensure that the elections were free and fair. "No part of KwaZulu-Natal or the country should be a no go area."
"The people of the province everywhere have said 'phansi ngodlame' (down with violence)."
At the close of the imbizo Mbeki promised he would work through the submissions people had made during the three days and answer them.
"I will work through all these submissions and we will answer not through words but by action."
People always expressed gratitude for what government was doing for them but asked where the jobs were. There were also requests for more development in the rural areas, where people often felt neglected and isolated.
Mbeki ended by advising people who are unhappy with government to vote. "Some people are saying they are not going to vote, that's the right of democracy. But if you are unhappy my advice is that you vote, but vote against government, because if you don't it will stay there".
Mbeki is expected to announce the election date in Parliament on February 11.
Fears that violence would erupt during the President's visit into IFP territory went unrealised, although there were tense moments.
In Tugela-Ferry the President's convoy was briefly stopped as IFP followers marched ahead of him. They carried traditional weapons and screamed that they were not afraid of the ANC.
At the Osizweni Stadium in Newcastle they blew whistles and shook fists at each other.
In Mahlabathini, Prince Gideon Zulu called Agriculture Minister Thoko Didiza a liar over the making of pension fund payouts a function of national government.
However, observers felt encouraged that IFP and ANC members had sat together in the same venues and engaged the president.
"It shows that things are changing. There are only some older people who try to keep tensions going because they are afraid of change. By 2009 (two elections away) it won't even be in the news," said a journalist as discussion raged about Mbeki's foray into the IFP strongholds.
"It's good he went there (Mahlabathini). If the president cannot got to any place in the county what does that mean for you an I?" said one government official.
All agreed that the trip had been a success — Mbeki had entered, listened and left unscathed.
By the time the cameras were pulled off tripods and the notebooks closed the jury was still out on whether the ANC would win the province. But one thing was clear — the bad old days of violence between the parties appeared to be slowly fading into the past.