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The dusty streets of Malibongwe Ridge were buzzing with activity on Saturday morning. It was early, but already the mood was festive, with music blaring from parked cars, children playing, and men in their workwear nursing hangovers while drinking yet another beer.

President Cyril Ramaphosa was on his way. 

Three months after residents from an informal settlement in the Cosmo City enclave moved into the Malibongwe Ridge mixed-housing development from nearby shacks, they were set to receive the commander-in-chief. Ramaphosa didn’t disappoint: his cavalcade blocked the streets as he wended his way on foot — surrounded by bodyguards — to visit residents in their newly acquired flatlets. Dozens of screaming citizens held their cellphones aloft, hoping to catch a glimpse of the country’s first citizen.

Ramaphosa’s demeanour was calm and quietly confident, his words to the community placating. You wouldn’t have guessed that he carried the weight of a 112-year-old former liberation movement on his shoulders.

The ANC is facing its toughest election yet. The party’s own research has placed its support between 48% and 52%, with corruption and load-shedding standing out as two crucial issues for a browbeaten electorate. Unemployment is another glaring red light, particularly in the two high-risk provinces for the ANC: Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. 

It is crucial to note that the research was conducted before the emergence of Jacob Zuma’s Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) Party, which is likely to inflict damage in KZN. 

Voter turnout will be vital to the party’s support — and enticing loyal supporters back to the ballot booth is at the heart of the party’s election campaign, its head of elections Mdumiseni Ntuli tells the FM.

Among its arsenal of not-so-secret weapons to accomplish this is Ramaphosa himself. That’s despite a dampening of the “Ramaphoria” that greeted his entry into the Union Buildings in 2018.

“On his worst day, he could add at least 11 percentage points to the ANC’s support. No other party leader even of opposition parties could do that,” an NEC member tells the FM. 

To ensure victory, Ntuli — a former ANC organiser, KZN spokesperson and provincial secretary — is not resting until June 1. Even his passion for sport and reading is on hold until then: he has an election campaign to run and he’s using the party’s history, track record and former leaders to ensure it gets over the line.

It’s a tough job, on the back of plummeting support in the most recent local elections, rolling blackouts, water shortages, corruption allegations and messy coalitions with the EFF, which appear to be designed to keep the patronage taps — if not the water taps — open in Gauteng’s large cities.

“It’s a very demanding job but, at last, over the past few weeks we started moving and in the coming weeks we will be ramping up for the final push,” Ntuli says. 

He and the party campaign team have a clear strategy in place: Ramaphosa must campaign in the areas with the deepest concentration of voters — the metros. 

“The president will be campaigning mostly in the metros and the secondary cities, that is where we need a major impact ... the other top six officials will be sent to more far-flung areas. This week the national chair [Gwede Mantashe] was deployed to Kimberley for the entire week, the deputy president [Paul Mashatile] to Umlazi in KZN, the secretary-general [Fikile Mbalula] to the Free State,” he says.   

Other recognisable and popular leaders are also fanning out across the country to interact directly with voters, Ntuli says. For instance, in KZN the party has drawn in all its former chairs to bolster the provincial leadership: Willies Mchunu, Senzo Mchunu, Zweli Mkhize, Bheki Cele, S’bu Ndebele and even Zuma’s preferred candidate in the party’s 2017 succession race, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, will be on the ground in the province.

Mdumiseni Ntuli: ANC campaign is ramping up for the final push. Picture: Sowetan/Sandile Ndlovu
Mdumiseni Ntuli: ANC campaign is ramping up for the final push. Picture: Sowetan/Sandile Ndlovu

Ramaphosa will be in the province this weekend and “on tour” for a full four days. 

In the next two weeks, the ANC campaign temperature will turn up a notch, with veterans including former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, and former deputy president David Mabuza, entering the fray.

The motivation for rolling out former leaders is to illustrate to the older party faithful that the liberation movement they once loved is making a comeback.

And what of Zuma, the ANC’s most recent and destructive former president, now making his own comeback?

“It is a fact of history that all our problems started under him [Zuma]. Yes, there were positives but the objective reality is the rapid decline of the ANC took place under him, the party lost its place as the leader of society,” Ntuli says. 

Another NEC leader tells the FM that Zuma may just ignite some of the party’s old, disgruntled voters to turn up and vote to “defend” the party from him.

As Ntuli tells it: “My own analysis is that rational South Africans will find it difficult to vote for Zuma. When you compare President Ramaphosa to him and even the rest of the opposition leaders, he [Ramaphosa] remains the most popular.”

What matters overall, says Ntuli, is direct contact between leaders and the ANC’s loyal base and key constituencies. On that count, failure is not an option.

President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: PRESIDENCY
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: PRESIDENCY

The ANC-EFF nettle

While the ANC is moving for an outright win, what of coalitions? If it is to hold on to power, it seems it will have to consider the possibility in at least two provinces — Gauteng and KZN — and even nationally. 

The DA, IFP and even the EFF have indicated that they would be open to working with the ANC in some form. For its part, the party has not outright ruled out working with any parties, but its leaders — at least publicly — stick stoically to the line that it is in the race to win it.

Ramaphosa, for example, publicly swipes aside the prospect of the ANC losing power nationally. “The ANC is not going to sit in opposition benches. The ANC is going to be the majority governing party of South Africa. That, I guarantee you. And watch this space after the 29th when the results are announced,” Ramaphosa said, in response to the FM.

And yet the FM understands that at the latest NEC meeting, Ramaphosa ventured into the raging debate around coalitions, telling the meeting that if the ANC has to sit in opposition benches, it should do exactly that.

“He said occupying opposition benches and rebuilding is part of renewal, it can protect the credibility and the integrity of the movement and show that we are not running after power,” a source tells the FM.

ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula. Picture: SINO MAJANGAZA
ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula. Picture: SINO MAJANGAZA

Another NEC source waves it off. “The president was reminding us that we have to accept that there may be instances that the ANC will have to remain in opposition. He was referring more to local government, not national and provincial.”

Ntuli, for his part, toes the party line. “Our fundamental position is we are campaigning to win outright and will not need to form any coalition. As the NEC, we frown on coalitions, we are really opposed to coalitions ... we know the consequences of coalitions, they are transactional.”

Mbalula says much the same. Speaking at the Chris Hani Memorial last week, he recounted coalition negotiations after the 2021 local elections, where he was up most of the night negotiating with a one-seat party for the mayoral position. “Coalitions are not something to be celebrated,” he said.

This kind of tough talk is calculated and deliberate, says independent analyst Prof Susan Booysen, because talking about coalitions means conceding that you will need them. It’s a natural stance for the governing party to take in public; a show of strength and force in politics is an asset.

But what discussions are taking place behind the scenes?

The only formal discussion the ANC has had took place at its NEC in October last year and focused considerably on local government, led by former Gauteng premier David Makhura. The decision was for the ANC to push for an outright win, that the party with the largest number of votes should lead any coalition formed and, interestingly, that coalitions with the EFF and Patriotic Alliance (PA) be wound up.  

Susan Booysen: ANC’s tough talk is calculated and deliberate.
Susan Booysen: ANC’s tough talk is calculated and deliberate.

Informally, there is feverish discussion about coalition prospects. These are being shaped, in part, by the party’s factional dynamics. Ramaphosa’s belief that the ANC should remain in opposition should it fail to receive an outright majority should be seen against a preference by the ANC Veterans League and the Youth League for the party to throw in its lot with the DA.

Another NEC source says there are clearly divergent views emerging on the matter — those aligned to Ramaphosa are more wary of an EFF tie-up, while Mashatile and his backers in Gauteng are more in favour of it.

“In my view, if the ANC NEC has to take a firm decision, it will reject working with the EFF,” says another source. This is because the balance of power in the structure remains in support of Ramaphosa. “At the same time, the biggest fear in working with the DA is a disassociation from our core support base.”

The preferred path is for a tie-up with the IFP or a group of smaller parties. But this is only possible if the ANC’s support does not slip below about 45%.

A huge drop in support could trigger internal conflict in the party, as some expect that Ramaphosa would probably resign or be pushed out. That could mean next year’s national general council — a midterm policy meeting — becomes elective, an insider says, triggering a succession race three years before the party’s next elective conference. It’s a situation most want to avoid.   

But if this were to materialise, sources say Mashatile will be the one to benefit — and he’s been at the heart of the party’s tie-up with the EFF in Gauteng. “The EFF attacks Cyril but you will never see them attacking Paul, they [the EFF] see him as a partner within the ANC. We must brace ourselves for that,” an insider tells the FM. 

Mashatile is the former Gauteng provincial chair, and his allies are in the driving seat in the province, so it’s not far-fetched to link the province’s insistence on working with the EFF to Mashatile, despite an NEC decision to the contrary.

Light moment: President Cyril Ramaphosa and Deputy President Paul Mashatile. Picture: Getty Images/Per-Anders Pettersson
Light moment: President Cyril Ramaphosa and Deputy President Paul Mashatile. Picture: Getty Images/Per-Anders Pettersson

An 80% target

Internal dynamics aside, in the end the party’s performance will rest on voter turnout and whether it can draw out its core base on election day — politics is, after all, a numbers game.

The ANC is dismissive of pre-election polling, because many of the companies and individuals conducting them have been linked to the DA. But it is not taking for granted that it will win an outright majority after slipping to 57% in 2019 and then to 48% in the 2021 local government election. 

Ntuli tells the FM the party will be relying on getting more than 80% in three crucial provinces — Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape — to bolster it in the face of a sure decline in Gauteng, KZN, the Free State and North West. 

ANC Mpumalanga chair Mandla Ndlovu tells the FM Zuma’s MK Party is the only real threat in that province, but not a considerable one.

“The ANC in the province is still enjoying support, MK is stealing more from the EFF. We have had a few defections, but no-one credible.” The general concern in Mpumalanga, Ndlovu says, mirrors national issues — load-shedding, unemployment and corruption. He emphasises that national and provincial election dynamics are vastly different from local ones and dynamics during by-elections, when small parties can “bribe” councillors to cross the floor and throw all of their resources into small contested areas.

“This is a national election, they can’t take a losing ward candidate and have them campaign for the EFF for instance ... and I don’t see any active member of the ANC aligning with MK. We are hoping to grow our support here in Mpumalanga,” he says.

Mandla Ndlovu: MK is stealing EFF support in Mpumalanga. Picture: Sowetan/Mandla Khoza
Mandla Ndlovu: MK is stealing EFF support in Mpumalanga. Picture: Sowetan/Mandla Khoza

In Limpopo, provincial secretary Reuben Madadzhe says the EFF, which ate into ANC support in previous elections, is on the retreat after its former leader in the province, Jossey Buthane, along with 400 other organisers, returned to the ANC. 

In the Eastern Cape, the MK Party was left red-faced over the weekend after an attempt to hold two rallies flopped due to poor attendance. 

The Northern Cape ANC also faced a decline in support in the last election, dropping by five percentage points to 58%. But its chair, Zamani Saul, believes the party has turned the situation around. 

“There is no competition here, MK has not found traction, the DA has for many years said our province is a target, but we are much stronger now,” he says.

Corruption was a huge problem for the electorate in the province. But Saul says he approached Ramaphosa to raise the issue two years ago and this resulted in the opening of the first Special Investigating Unit office in the province.

“We can see them working, there are arrests taking place and people are being held to account since that intervention two years ago,” he tells the FM. 

After a steady decline in the Western Cape, the ANC believes it can begin making inroads in the DA-run province again. There are two reasons: the ANC’s sympathetic stance on Palestine (the province has the largest Muslim population in the country) and the DA’s “alienation” of coloured voters.

A senior ANC leader tells the FM that despite the area having a majority coloured population, the DA does not have a single prominent coloured leader in the Western Cape. However, late last year the DA elected a coloured provincial leader, Tertuis Simmers, who it hopes will help the party swell its support among the coloured community, swatting off threats from the PA and the ANC.  

ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa dances during the party’s election manifesto launch at Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU
ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa dances during the party’s election manifesto launch at Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU

Problematic polls

In the final analysis, says political analyst Prof Steven Friedman, the biggest advantage for the ANC is that despite a record number of new political parties, voters still see no viable alternative to it. 

“The problem is that one of the distorting factors in this election is middle-class people living in South Africa are the focus in what’s going to happen ... but whether the ANC gets more than 50% does not depend on the middle class, because that group dumped the party in 2014 and never went back,” he says. 

“Traditional ANC voters don’t feel particularly impressed by the alternatives and I would not be surprised if they went back to the ANC because they don’t want Jacob Zuma to return as president.”

Still, electoral trends show that while five years ago the ANC was still the “only game in town” nationally, that picture is shifting, he adds.

In KZN, Friedman says the MK Party is likely to have an impact but there is little reliable data on how big that impact will be. The 13% indicated by pollsters in recent weeks is “totally out of sync” with by-election results — really the only tangible evidence of its support. 

Steve Friedman: Traditional ANC voters aren’t impressed by the alternatives. Picture: Business Day/Arnold Pronto
Steve Friedman: Traditional ANC voters aren’t impressed by the alternatives. Picture: Business Day/Arnold Pronto

“MK is not a tsunami of populist support, to me,” he says. “In by-elections MK came third and fourth after the ANC and IFP. Now, you don’t win 13% of the national vote if you are only in third or fourth position in KZN, the numbers don’t add up. It is a party based on Zulu identity and there is no evidence it is at play elsewhere. 

“There is a minority who remain sympathetic to Zuma in KZN. I mean, the man could not win back the ward he lived in, in Nkandla, from the IFP over two election cycles ... It also looks like he is taking support from the EFF and IFP.” 

Booysen says she has been reading the polling done so far with a “great deal of circumspection”, saying the polls are misleading — either out of “ignorance” or “deliberately” so. 

While they are hardly credible, they can be used to give certain parties an advantage or place them at a disadvantage, she adds. “If voters see the liberation party in danger, they may come out to defend the ANC ... it could have the opposite effect of what it is intended to do.”

Booysen says she, too, observes a sense of nostalgia pervading the ANC election campaign — even the SABC has been rebroadcasting documentaries and movies reminiscent of the 1994 democratic breakthrough prior to celebrations around the 30th anniversary next week. 

“This kind of rekindling of nostalgia will pay off handsomely, but there is also the reality that most South Africans are living with and it’s almost like a local government election where the key focus is on water, sanitation and living conditions. Those are the issues the ANC is battling with and it’s a big mountain to climb due to the lack of trust that has developed,” she says. 

Voters have shown repeatedly that they are prepared to punish a faltering ANC. It is why this election is the most hotly contested that democratic South Africa has yet seen — and it is right for them to do so. 

Whatever happens after May 29, the ANC would have earned it. 

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