Economic power and social discontent are setting the stage for the mother of all electoral battles.
Mangaung may well be the birthplace of South Africa's current ruling party. But Gauteng – once called the Transvaal – has always been a crucial powerhouse for any party that has governed the country.
It was in Gauteng that the country paid its last (dis)respects to the National Party, and where the ANC seems to be fighting for its life. Or is it?
The Democratic Alliance (DA), the Congress of the People (Cope), the United Democratic Movement (UDM), the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Agang – you name them – were all born in Gauteng and it is no coincidence that most parties have headquarters in this province.
Of the 25-million people registered to vote in May, the majority – six million – are in Gauteng. Therefore, the mother of all electoral battles is most likely to be there.
Aside from being the seat of power and the commercial centre – with three major metropoles and most of the country's top blue-chip companies – almost a quarter of the country's population lives in Gauteng.
People from other provinces and countries add even more pressure to the already strained Gauteng resources and infrastructure.
The Gauteng health department's annual report, tabled in the legislature last spring, showed that neighbouring provinces owed the department almost half a billion rands for, among other things, transferring their patients to facilities in the province.
Congestion in schools – Western Cape Premier Helen Zille is not the only one receiving education "refugees" – and insufficient housing are nightmares for the province, despite allocating R87-billion to its various departments this year.
Although it generates a third of the country's gross domestic product, a quarter of Gauteng's economically active population is without jobs –and there's no silver lining, despite the promises in political parties' manifestos.
With the high rate of unemployment and increasing immigration, as well as expectations and fierce competition for resources, the province has become the epicentre of socioeconomic eruptions. These range from fatal xenophobic attacks to violent protests against poor services, as well as unabated crime.
When not battling criminals, Gautengers have to contend with the rising cost of living. Food, rent (or mortgage bonds), electricity and transport are becoming increasingly unaffordable.
It is also in this province that the government's policy on e-tolls has revved up civil society anger.
The ANC's Gauteng secretary and one of the party's candidates for premier, David Makhura, says his party may review the controversial e-tolls after "assessing their impact on the cost of doing business and living".
"Unlike the opposition, we are not going to exploit this as an electioneering tool, because we are still going to review the e-tolls implications long after the elections," he says.
For the ANC, Gauteng is a baro–meter of its voters' patience. If independent surveys are anything to go by, their patience is waning, but Makhura disagrees.
For a party that lost the Western Cape to the DA in 2009, losing Gauteng would be a devastating electoral blow. Some in the party admit that such a defeat would signal the beginning of the end.
But the ANC’s Gauteng leaders told journalists late last year that their aim is for 70% of the votes regionally. If they achieve their dream, it would represent a 5% increase on the party’s 2009 electoral performance.
An Ipsos survey, however, pushed down the ANC’s support in Gauteng to 45.5% earlier this year and the party has suddenly gone quiet on its 70% target. Makhura now prefers the phrase "overwhelming majority".
Yet instead of focusing on the external threats the party seems to be distracted by internal squabbles.
Most of the provincial leaders, under Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile, cannot stand President Jacob Zuma – even though the two apparently kissed and made up last month.
Zuma has been booed twice in the province, with some in Luthuli House privately suspecting Gauteng ANC leaders' hidden hand behind it.
On the other hand, Premier Nomvula Mokonyane – who is seen as Zuma's key ally in the province – has either been sidelined in the party or was alienated by her comrades.
She has chosen to stay away from some of the party's election events organised by provincial ANC leaders. In turn, the party has on several occasions micromanaged and forced decisions on Mokonyane's administration.
In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, Makhura stayed away from factional battles and preferred to gloat about the ANC's achievements in the province – from transforming Soweto and other townships to eradicating informal settlements.
But Makhura agrees that new informal settlements shoot up as soon as the government declares some areas formal townships.
"It's a problem and it shows that Gauteng continues to be a migrant province. We have invested in resources where there was neglect … to make Gauteng globally competitive," he says, pointing to last year's Goldman Sachs report, which showed that improvements have been made since 1994.
He echoes Zuma’s view that the current disgruntlement is a backhanded compliment for their achievements – meaning that delivery breeds more demands.
Growth is still slower than the population and immigration rate, resulting in social discontent. Thousands have taken to the streets in the past decade, leaving several townships in flames – with the perennial cry being a demand for basic amenities.
Makhura is defensive, saying the protests are not all about poor services but rather against incompetent government leaders.
But surely these leaders are ANC? "Yes, but the protesters still expect the ANC to come and intervene. They are not asking the DA or other parties. It means they still have confidence in us."
ANC campaigners threw away election leaflets and reached for their guns on the West Rand last week as Bekkersdal residents declared their township an ANC-free zone.
The National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (Numsa) – which used to campaign for the ANC – has openly severed links with the ruling party, telling its members they are free to vote for whoever they wish.
For the DA, Agang, the EFF and others, this is good news. And the province has become their hunting ground for the fed-up, the Bekkersdal dissidents, the undecided Numsa members and the unemployed and despondent youth.
But a senior DA leader confided last year that the party's efforts to go for the fed-up young voter were "dislodged" by the EFF, which has made its presence felt throughout the province.
Makhura says the fight between the EFF and the DA for the "disgruntled" voter has made the latter less of a threat.
DA presidential candidate Mmusi Maimane says people will see through the EFF's "populism and hollow promises". "People want leadership that is not corrupt, and solid policies," he said in a veiled reference to the EFF leader Julius Malema, who is facing corruption charges.
Makhura also cautions that the so-called EFF constituency of young and unemployed people might not show up on polling day. "Are they registered?" he asks.
Dali Mpofu, the EFF's Gauteng premier candidate, says it’s a perilous mistake to believe that the party's constituency is confined to young, apathetic voters.
"We are going for everyone … But [even for] the young voter, the fact that they come to our rallies in their thousands means they are not as apathetic as people may think," he says, asking his critics: "Which party has ever pulled 50 000 people to its rally in Gauteng alone?"
The Ipsos poll in January estimated the EFF's Gauteng support at 7.3%, but Mpofu says "we are intending to govern". His aim seems higher than electoral trends suggest, given that Cope – which was formed under similar circumstances by disgruntled ANC leaders – only managed to get 7.7% of the votes in the province in 2009.
The DA, according to Ipsos, commands 25% of Gauteng support, a slight increase from its 21.2% of the votes it won in the province in the 2009 elections.
Maimane says the DA is aiming higher than 25% by pushing the ANC below the 45% threshold. But his party's electoral Achilles heel is its inability to climb the racial wall, a crippling factor given the country's racially polarised voting pattern.
Maimane says, contrary to the views of the DA's critics, the party has been making inroads into black areas.
With Agang's support estimated at 3%, it seems the real contest in Gauteng will be between the ANC, the DA and the EFF. Unless the voting patterns change, the past four elections in Gauteng showed that about 90% of the electorate preferred only three parties.