EFF and Agang SA leaders' ties to the province may disrupt old voting patterns.
If you are from Limpopo, the story goes, you are most likely to support Kaizer Chiefs, the ANC and the Zion Christian Church.
As an unscientific demographic profile, it's a bit tongue in cheek. Still, it is hardly controversial to observe that Chiefs are still the most supported team and the ZCC remains the largest indigenous church in the province.
But when it comes to the ANC, is the fact becoming fiction? Will the ruling party, which for 20 years enjoyed overwhelming support, remain among the top three legendary provincial brands in May?
Limpopo's vastness, the distances between its mainly rural towns, would stretch the resources and time of any political party trying to reach its sparsely dotted 2.4-million voters, across the over 125 000km² area.
From Musina in the west to Modimolle in the south and Lephalale in the northeast, campaigners will not only need to put in the hard kilometres, but will also need to be flexible of tongue. Seven of the 11 official languages are spoken in this province, the second highest number after Gauteng.
Nelson Mandela used to charm the Limpopeans with his broken Sepedi, spoken by half of the population. Madiba insisted that his official residence – Mahlambandlopfu – be named in Xitsonga, spoken by about 17% of the province's population. Tshivenda comes in at third.
But most South Africans are not aware that Setswana is also spoken here, especially in the villages bordering Botswana such as Ga-Seleka and Ga-Shongwane near Lephalale. And isiNdebele can be heard along the Waterberg region and Zebediela.
But politicians who don't speak any of these languages shouldn't despair: Afrikaans and English are perfectly well understood by the majority there.
Ruling parties have always loved Limpopo, and the feeling seems to have been mutual. Before 1994, the province was key to the National Party's voting (read white) constituency; after, it overwhelmingly supported the ANC.
But political commentators believe the ruling party will for the first time since 1994 receive less than 80% of the votes – a significant shift from the 90.1% it received in 1994 and the 85.27% during the 2009 elections.
With an estimated total population of 5.8-million, Limpopo is largely rural and is counted among the less developed provinces in the country, with a high level of unemployment.
For decades, most of its economically active population migrated to "Makgoweng" (literally, the place of the whites – a Sepedi reference to Gauteng) for work and other opportunities. And the government has been the primary provider of services and jobs – perhaps the biggest reason for the ruling party's support.
But opposition parties in the province are exploiting the ANC government's continued failure to deliver services – textbook incompetence and corruption spring to mind – to woo potential voters and reduce the ANC's majority.
In 2011 the national treasury placed five key provincial government departments under administration: these had failed to manage their finances largely because of mismanagement and incompetence.
The province made headlines again this week after the nongovernment organisation Section27 took the education department to court for failing to deliver books to thousands of pupils.
Analysts do believe such failures will reduce the support of the ruling party. But it’s interesting, too, that no other party has ever had a second term as official opposition. And no official opposition – except the Congress of the People (Cope) – has ever won more than 4% of the provincial vote.
But the emergence of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and AgangSA is being seen as the first serious test of the ANC's majority support. The national leaders of both the EFF and Agang are themselves from Limpopo, to their advantage, perhaps. But they might be reminded that the last party to have successfully exploited an ethnic vote was the Inkatha Freedom Party in KwaZulu-Natal.
During her time as an anti-apartheid activist in the 1980s, Agang's Mamphela Ramphele was banished to Tzaneen in Limpopo, where she established a rural clinic and connected with local folks. But the last time she revisited this village the turnout was less than impressive.
The EFF's Julius Malema is more aggressively divisive: in Limpopo, as with the rest of the country, it seems, you either love him or love to hate him. He's popular with most, but a notorious, corrupt fat cat to some, especially to those who marched in jubilation soon after he was fired from the ANC.
Yet when he left the ANC he took with him some disgruntled members, particularly among the youth. And he appears to have rattled the ANC's top brass, who have regularly – if nervously – frequented the province since the EFF was formed.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) is also starting to make inroads in black communities. It surprised many, perhaps even itself, by winning the Ward 5 by-election in Makhado.
It has also increased its support base in Malema's backyard of Seshego, from 4% to 17%, according to claims by the DA's provincial leaders.
But Malema is still the biggest bogeyman for the ANC in Limpopo, and party leaders underestimate him at their peril.
"The EFF presents a unique challenge," says political analyst Elvis Masoga. "It's the first time a young person has broken [from the ANC] and started a party. We are not sure if the EFF will reduce the ANC majority [significantly], but it would not be wise to judge Malema on the fortunes of other leaders who [left the ANC and] started their own parties before."
Academic Lesiba Teffo says corruption and the increased social distance between ANC leaders and ordinary members in the province are contributing to the ANC's declining support in the province.
"The ANC will experience a decline in support across the board, except in KwaZulu-Natal," says Teffo. "In Limpopo, you are likely to see a slight shift. Unlike before, people in the province are beginning to be critical of the ANC. Those in office are failing to do their work of delivering basic services to the community. Corruption is high. The province is always in the news for the wrong reasons. Failure to supply [school] books has become synonymous with Limpopo."
Newly elected ANC provincial secretary Nocks Seabi prefers to downplay the impact of the textbook scandal, however, as well as the threat posed by the formation of new parties such as EFF and Agang. He is confident his party will maintain its support: "We don’t want anything less than 80% in this election."
Compounding the ANC's problems in the province are the factional divisions in the party, which intensified towards its national conference in Mangaung in 2012. Seabi believes the newly elected provincial executive committee of the ANC in the province is representative of all the factions of the party in the province.
"As a result, all members of the ANC are coming back to volunteer to campaign," says Seabi. "Factional battles are no longer the issue. On a daily basis we are welcoming [back] people who left to join the EFF. We are going to get some of the Cope members who left the ANC as well."
Malema, meanwhile, believes his party stands a good chance to topple the ANC in the province.
"The highest number of our members throughout the country come from Limpopo," he says. "[Out of the 400 000], we have 70 000 paid-up members in Limpopo. We will do very well. That's one province we stand a good chance of taking over."
Malema dismisses the recent Ipsos survey predicting that his party would get less than 1% in Limpopo, contending that this must be an error from the pollster.
"The EFF won nine out of 10 seats during student representative council elections at an FET college in the Vhembe region. At the University of Limpopo we came second after Sasco [South African Student Congress]," he says. "We defeated the ANC Youth League, which came third. I am not talking about telephone research here. We are talking about actual voters who are going to vote. Limpopo is home for the EFF. The ANC is extremely challenged there."
Limpopo DA's Jacques Smalle is also confident his party will not get anything less than a double digit. He says the DA in the province is investing 90% of its resources to campaign in the rural areas.
"The majority of our voter support base will be nontraditional – coloureds, Indians and blacks."
In his analysis, Masoga believes the contest for the official opposition in Limpopo will be between the EFF and the DA.
"I don’t expect anything from Cope, which is the current official opposition."
And if the ANC brand in Limpopo is eroded, the party's image consultants might want to peruse the marketing strategies of Kaizer Chiefs and the ZCC in the province – these two components of the Limpopo trinity are still standing strong.