Cyril Ramaphosa is in the front line of the party's bid to wrestle the Western Cape from the DA.
When ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa swept into the Western Cape last month, he urged supporters to launch a grassroots drive to defeat the Democratic Alliance in the May 7 general elections. "Let us be ready to return the ANC to power here in the Western Cape," Ramaphosa told a crowd in Lwandle township outside Somerset West.
The businessman-turned-politician was one of four top ANC leaders deployed to campaign in the Western Cape that same weekend. And although a lobby group of ANC leaders in the province is pushing for Ramaphosa to take over from President Jacob Zuma after the party's national conference in 2017, even those who do not back him hope he would help to boost its election campaign.
Analysts say taking back the province from the DA will not be an easy task. Unlike the other provinces, the ANC has not dominated this political landscape since 1994.
Dr Cherrel Africa, senior lecturer and head of the department of political studies at the University of the Western Cape, said it was in 2009, with the New National Party absorbed into the ANC, that the contest became one between the DA and the ANC. National events between 2004 and 2009, she said, had created a situation in which the DA's messages were much more salient to voters in the Western Cape.
"South Africans watched enthralled as Jacob Zuma, then deputy president of the country, faced a lengthy and extensively covered rape trial. While he was eventually acquitted of the rape charges, some of his statements under oath about HIV made him the object of scorn and ridicule."
The rape trial was preceded by the protracted and well publicised corruption trial of Schabir Shaik, a close associate of President Zuma. "Following [Shaik's] conviction, then president Thabo Mbeki relieved Zuma of his role as deputy president, installing Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka as the new deputy president," said Africa.
"The ANC was polarised into antagonistic pro-Mbeki and pro-Zuma blocs, culminating in the removal of former President Thabo Mbeki from his role as president of the country and Ebrahim Rasool as the premier of the Western Cape. These events also precipitated the resignation of several ANC members and the Congress of the People was formed under the leadership of Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa."
Helen Zille puts up election posters in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town. (David Harrison, M&G)
Having served as an election analyst for the SABC and eTV as well as playing a role in election observation in the country, Africa believes that these national events had a damaging effect on perceptions of Zuma in the Western Cape.
An Afrobarometer survey conducted in late 2008 revealed that respondents in the Western Cape had very little trust in Zuma, she said.
"In addition to the national events outlined, ANC structures in the Western Cape were beset with their own problems. The ANC's carefully planned, low-key campaigns of 1999 and 2004, which had successfully allayed the fears of voters in the province, [were] now undermined by a barrage of media images which contradicted the party's messages.
'Fight back' campaign
"Furthermore, ANC members who left to join Cope lent credibility to the DA's messages," said Africa. "The 1999 'fight back' campaign and the key message of 2004 that 'South Africa deserves better' could be countered as being unnecessarily dramatic or even unpatriotic, but messages about the supremacy of the Constitution and the challenges to democracy posed by ANC dominance resonated with voters.
"In the Western Cape these messages clearly fell on fertile ground. It was in this context that the DA ran a well-organised and focused campaign under the banner ‘One Nation, One Future' and the party galvanised under its new leader, Helen Zille."
No party in the Western Cape can take its supporters for granted because, as data from Afrobarometer revealed, voters in the Western Cape exhibit lower levels of party identification than voters in other provinces.
"Now that these patterns have been set, I don't believe that events such as the toilet wars, the evictions in Hangberg and the farm strikes will have a major impact on the DA's support base in the Western Cape," said Africa. "Neither do I believe that internal migration or the formation of new parties will undermine the DA's base in the Western Cape. I am not a betting person but feel the DA would most likely win by an outright majority. This I would base on their consolidated support base revealed in the 2011 local government elections."
It remains to be seen how new parties such as Agang and the Economic Freedom Fighters, will affect the province. For the 2014 election, 148 parties are registered, according to the IEC's website, and 24 have been registered in the Western Cape.
Shifting voting patterns
Voting patterns in the Western Cape have shown some significant shifts over the years. In the provincial elections in 1999 the DA received 11.91% of the vote in its former incarnation as the Democratic Party (DP), and 26.9% in 2004, according to data from the Independent Electoral Commission. By 2009, its support had risen to 51.46% of the vote.
On a national level the DA received 9.56% in 1999 – again in its incarnation as the DP – and its share rose to 12.37% in 2004, and 16.66% in 2009.
The ANC meanwhile won 66.35% of the national vote in 1999. This rose to 69.69% in 2004, then dropped to 65.9% in 2009. In provincial election results for the Western Cape, the ANC held 42.7% of the vote in 1999, 45.25% in 2004 and 31.55% in 2009.
The Western Cape is one of only two provinces that have seen turn-overs in power since 1994, according to Dr Nicola de Jager, a senior political science lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch.
The demographics of the province, and the coloured vote in particular, she said, may help to explain voting patterns. The coloured population in the province makes up 49.6%, according to 2011 census data.
"The history of their vote in the [Western] Cape province has been interesting as they have shown themselves to be a rather strategic voting bloc," said De Jager.
Post-1994, this bloc moved to vote for the National Party, which became the New National Party (NNP), according to De Jager. After the disbandment of the NNP, and with the formation of the Independent Democrats (ID) under Patricia de Lille in 2003, this support base moved to the ID. It has largely moved across to the DA after the ID announced its merger with the DA in 2010.
"It is a generalisation, but the coloured vote has tended to be for the opposition and not beholden to a specific party," De Jager said.
Another explanation is the DA's success on the local level, she noted. "A key resource for the DA has been access to government and the use of coalitions."
The DA marginally won the 2006 election for the City of Cape Town, and ruled through a coalition with six smaller parties. By 2011 it had won an outright majority.
"During its time in office, it managed to ring up a number of accolades, for example in 2013 Cape Town was rated the most productive metropolitan area to work, live and invest in, according to a municipal productivity index released by Municipal IQ," said De Jager.
It positions itself as a "party of government" and campaigns on its successes, promoting itself as a "government that delivers", she said, contributing to its winning the province in 2009. A clear strategy of the DA is "to win local, govern well and aim for provincial", she said.
De Jager believes the ANC and its internal factional wrangling in the Western Cape has been another reason it lost power. "It has led to a weak and unorganised grouping, with strong individual personalities exhibiting political opportunism".
But Western Cape ANC provincial secretary Songezo Mjongile said anyone who believes the party is still weak in the province was using outdated analyses.
"These are historical issues, and not current issues," said Mjongile. "The analysts are not in touch with what is happening on the ground. The ANC in the last three years has been renewed, which will be evident at the polls."