Jubilent IFP supporters. Picture: THE TIMES
Jubilent IFP supporters. Picture: THE TIMES

With a year to go to the crucial 2019 national elections, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) appears to be capitalising on opponents’ weaknesses to secure several recent municipal by-election victories.

Just last week the IFP grew its support in ward 7 in the Nkandla municipality despite the ANC sending in KwaZulu-Natal premier Willies Mchunu and disgraced former president Jacob Zuma to lobby support for the ANC.

THe IFP increased its support in the highly contested ward from 51% to 53%, while the ANC support dropped from 48% to 45%.

The ANC had earlier in May lost a ward to the IFP in Matubatuba where it grew its support from 36.7% to 47.1%.

The party also won a by-election in ward 2 in Jozini in April this year with an overwhelming majority.

Most notably, the IFP won 14 out of 17 wards in by-elections in Nquthu in 2017, giving the party a majority in the council that allowed it to elect its candidate as mayor in the northern KwaZulu-Natal municipality.

The ANC in KwaZulu-Natal is highly divided as it prepares to go into its provincial conference to elect new leadership.

There have also been rumblings about a possible new political party that will be launched by a pro-Zuma lobby group. But the former president’s son, Edward, has distanced his father from any such talk.

The National Freedom Party (NFP), which split the IFP’s vote after its formation, has all but disintegrated with voters mostly rejoining the IFP.

IFP chief whip Narend Singh said in a statement following the Matubatuba vote that the IFP was growing.

Singh told Business Day said the NFP was "out of the question at this stage" and the ANC in the province was unstable.

"I think people are once again beginning to see the IFP as a voice of reason," Singh said.

He said that the IFP was now stable, which attracted support.

A leadership change in the party was, however, inevitable after IFP leader Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi indicated that he would hand over the reins at the party’s next elective conference later this year.

Buthelezi was instrumental in campaigning for his party ahead of the by-elections.

Singh said whether Buthelezi won the leadership contest or not "he should be the face of the party in the election", as the party is associated "with him and good governance".

He expected that the IFP would make significant progress in the 2019 elections, the outcome of which would have a big impact on who governs the province.

Somadoda Fikeni, a political analyst at Unisa, said the IFP’s support was stabilising on the back of a very divided ANC, split between Zuma supporters and the rest.

He said the NFP, as well as Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, was "somewhat drifting away from the ANC provincial government" and the national government.

He said the IFP was "talking the same language as the king on land".

The party had dismissed proposals on control of rural land, including that owned by the Ingonyama Trust of which the king is the sole trustee. Fikeni said the IFP had also not been involved in "too many scandals".

The IFP would do a bit better at the ballot box, especially in the rural areas of Northern KwaZulu-Natal, he said.