In a rapidly changing political landscape, the ANC appears worn out, writes Richard Calland.
It's about jobs, stupid! That much at least is clear. But, in other respects, especially campaign strategy, there is an uncertainty about the next two months that hopefully will appeal to the electorate as much as to political junkies.
The ruling ANC is under real pressure going into this election, much of it of its own making, even though it insists it has a "good story to tell" – to deploy one of the two rather compelling refrains that sounded repeatedly in Jacob Zuma's best-ever State of the Nation address three weeks ago.
It was a politically savvy speech, well constructed and spoken with an admirable straightforwardness to the 7pm TV and radio audience; for the first time the speech even improved the mood and lifted the spirits of the ANC backbenches.
Inevitably, it was an election speech, one that had to make the case not just for his government but also for the ANC government. Above all, the ANC has to convince the electorate that it has not run out of ideas and that it deserves a new mandate to rule.
Although the clunky and dull phrase "Together we move South Africa forward!" is formally the ANC's election campaign line, the motif that is likely to inform the ANC's election strategy, and which certainly reveals most about it, is that South Africa "is a much better place to live in" – the second refrain that made several appearances in Zuma's address.
Objectively, this is true. But it requires the ANC to trade heavily on its past, which plucks the emotional chords of older voters who remember not just life under apartheid but also the ANC's noble role in defeating it, rather than investing in the future in a way that will capture the confidence and imagination of the large number of young voters who make up the key battleground for the 2014 general election.
About a third of the 33-million eligible voters are 29 years old or younger; of the 25-million who have now registered to vote, 2.3-million have registered for the first time, according to the Independent Electoral Commission. This is the electoral frontline, with jobs being the key issue, which is why the Democratic Alliance (DA) has placed employment at the forefront of its campaign, with the slogan "Together for change, together for jobs".
For sound electoral strategic reasons, the DA has been chipping away at the ANC's credibility on job creation and building up its own, though whether the DA has anything substantively different to offer by way of a palliative for unemployment is highly questionable.
Although corruption has shot up the league table of voters' concerns in recent years, according to the Human Sciences Research Council's polling, unemployment remains the issue of the greatest concern to the greatest number by a country mile.
Despite its messy dalliance with Mamphela Ramphele, the DA campaign machine is well oiled and resourced, and an apparently disciplined and a growing force.
Focusing on the issue that concerns people the most and attacking the ANC's record on job creation by preying on young peoples' fears about an unrewarding future is likely to prove a very effective campaign strategy.
It's doubtful if the DA can fulfil its promise of more work. (Skyler Reid, M&G)
So the ANC is forced to hark back to happier days and to trade heavily on the liberation brand that until now has proved to be so resilient. But it will be for the last time. By 2019, it will have to have found a new tune to play.
Hence, my own analytical epiphany: the ANC should now be regarded as a conservative party. It is no longer the party of change, looking ahead with a compelling alternative vision for society. On the contrary, it argues for more of the same: a continuation of the policies of the past five years, the continuation of ANC rule, and the continued allegiance with the public-sector unions in particular and the attendant tenderpreneur parasites who live off their relationships with government officials, especially in the sphere of local government.
Certainly, when Zuma said in the State of the Nation address that the social delivery protests were the result of the success of the government rather than its failures – because when you have delivered to 95%, "naturally" the 5% will feel aggrieved – it was the least convincing part of his speech.
It is hard to imagine that this assertion would be regarded by the large numbers of unemployed South Africans as anything other than spin of the most tendentious kind, standing in stark contrast to what they see all around them.
As a consequence, suddenly and remarkably, in contrast to the ANC, the DA can present itself as the party with the change agenda, no longer that of the reactionary protection of minority interests that it has struggled to escape for the past 20 years.
Clearly, in turn, the ANC will have to campaign negatively against the DA to penetrate its new veneer.
Will the ANC muster the necessary campaigning focus and force, and the strategic flexibility required? Can it bifurcate its campaign accordingly? Does it have the skill and capacity to rise to the occasion?
In the positive column of its current political balance sheet, it has just two things, one of them very much now in doubt, despite the steady decline of the Inkatha Freedom Party: Zuma's popularity in KwaZulu-Natal, the most populous province. Remember that, whereas the ANC's support in the eight other provinces fell on average by 8% in the 2009 general elections, it went up by 16% in KwaZulu-Natal.
But now Zuma's own popularity (according to some private polling) is almost as many points lower than the popularity of his party, just as DA leader Helen Zille's is higher –by 20 points – than that of hers.
The other major entry in the ANC's plus column is the inevitable advantage of incumbency, which this year comes with a layer of thick additional cream in that not only will the ruling party be able to deploy state resources to buttress its lacklustre campaign, it will also be able to tailor the celebrations of 20 years of democracy to its campaign, which will presumably reach a crescendo on April 27, Freedom Day, shortly before the May 7 poll.
In the negative column, there are sizeable entries. First of all, it can no longer count on the unequivocal support of the trade union movement, as Cosatu unity continues to disintegrate.
Second, it is seriously short of money, as evidenced by the sudden sale of some of the family silver in the form of the ANC's share of its corporate front, Chancellor House.
Third, having to all intents and purposes disbanded its youth league as a part of its lancing of the Julius Malema boil, it no longer has the dynamic army of young foot soldiers that it used to have.
Fourth, Malema is a destabilising nuisance, going to places where the ANC now fears to tread, and doing so with a charismatic turn of phrase that pinches the ruling party's Achilles heel on jobs and corruption.
But, because he lacks the organisational capacity and experience to mobilise his most likely potential voters to register, Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters will make a disproportionate amount of noise but will be unlikely to get more than 4% to 5% of the vote.
Squeezed, the other smaller parties will struggle to muster more than 10% between them. That leaves about 85% of the votes for the big two parties to contest.
In the local government elections of 2011, the DA got 24% of the national vote, but on a much smaller voter turn-out than can be expected in May.
Still, it's a reasonable starting point for assessing the likely balance of power. Hence, for every percentage point above 25% that the DA can get, the ANC will fall below the game-changing and psychologically significant figure of 60%, which is now a very distinct possibility.
That this scenario is even plausible shows how quickly things are moving and how the electoral and political landscape is shifting. How the ANC responds to the emerging challenge to its hegemony, both over the next two months and the next five years, will determine the character and trajectory of the next 20 years of democracy, which is why 2014 could prove to be a watershed election.
Richard Calland's latest book, The Zuma Years: South Africa's Changing Face of Power, is published by Zebra.