The Free State's declining mineral wealth is a metaphor for what might happen to the ANC's support in the upcoming May 7 election.
Geographically, the 129 825km2 Free State province is South Africa's heartland. It should also be the heart of the ANC, which has ruled the province since the inception of democracy 20 years ago:
- The ANC was formed in the Free State in 1912;
- The province has been one of its strongholds since the first democratic elections in 1994;
- The ANC won 71% of the vote in the province in 2009;
- The ANC in the Free State has set itself an ambitious target of winning 85% of the votes on May 7; and
- It is hard imagine any ANC leader more in tune with Jacob Zuma’s vision than provincial chairperson Premier Ace Magashule.
- The largest chunk of the Free State is flat, rolling veld and seemingly endless fields of grain. Opposition parties believe that the province’s flatness reflects the support the ANC is likely to receive in the May 7 election. And an Ipsos survey predicts that voter support for the party could fall by about 15% to 55.4%.
But if there is that much of a drop in support it would have been caused by the ANC itself rather than by the inroads made by opposition parties. In recent years, the ruling party under Magashule’s stewardship has been plagued by a series of service delivery protests and a number of corruption allegations.
Data from Municipal IQ, a local government data and intelligence service, shows that 14% of all protests in the country between January and July 2012 were in the Free State, second only to the Western Cape, with 24%.
Poor governance led to the national treasury putting a strict watch on some provincial departments in 2012 through section 100 (1) (a) of the Constitution. The provincial treasury as well as the departments of police, roads and transport, which showed failures in supply chain procedures and poor performance, were strictly monitored, with Magashule working with a technical support team from the national government to oversee the monitoring.
The treasury also launched an investigation into the controversial R570-million Free State dairy project under the provincial department of agriculture, following several Mail & Guardian exposés in mid-2013.
The provincial government made headlines last year after it emerged that it had awarded a R40-million tender to Letlaka Communications and Media to redesign its website, a job that could have been done at a fraction of the cost.
ANC provincial secretary William Bulwana has defended the ruling party's performance in the provincial government, saying some of the accusations against it are politically motivated.
The ANC was founded at the Waaihoek Wesleyan Church in Bloemfontein. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)
"We have explained all [the] allegations to our people and said where we did wrong, please forgive us," he said. "There is nothing we are hiding."
Bulwana said the ANC's dream of gaining 85% of the provincial vote was achievable.
"All the political parties in the province are just talking, but they are not on the ground. We have been everywhere in the province, and I have not seen any party on the ground. I see them only in the media."
Two-billion years ago, a 10km-wide meteorite crashed into what is now the northern Free State. The meteorite, the biggest to date to hit Earth and nearly twice as big as the one that is thought to have killed the dinosaurs 65-million years ago, made a crater that was about 300km wide, known as the Vredefort Dome.
But opposition parties are unlikely to have the same kind of impact on the ANC's support base.
The Ipsos survey predicts that the Democratic Alliance will increase its vote from the 12% it won in 2009 to 24.9%. The Congress of the People (Cope) is expected to take third spot, with an estimated 7.3% support.
Although the survey shows that Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is expected to muster only a low 2%, Bulwana said it was the only party the ANC was concerned about.
"They are taking our young people," he said. "We must not undermine it. We are not worried about the DA and Cope."
Cope, which is the official opposition with four seats in the provincial legislature, is rather ambitiously hoping to get 40% of the vote. Provincial secretary Mzwandile Hleko said it had employed 200 full-time workers to recruit potential voters.
"In each and every voting district, we need 319 votes," said Hleko. "We have started our machinery on the ground. We have co-ordinators everywhere. By May 4, we must know how many people will vote for us."
Cope's rise to become the official opposition in the province in the first year it contested elections in 2009 raised hopes that it could grow, but it was weakened by debilitating internal power struggles.
In the past two elections, the DA's support in the province has grown steadily. DA provincial leader Patricia Kopane said the party would continue to grow because voters were confidently beginning to associate with it.
"We used to struggle to even get people to agree to become candidates, but these days when you call a meeting, people come in droves," she said. "Previously, people did not want to be associated with the DA. They thought the DA was part of the National Party, but the ‘know your DA' campaign helped us change attitudes."
Kopane said poverty levels were still high in the province, with 48% of people affected.
"They rely on social grants," she said. "As much as grants have alleviated poverty, this government has failed to create jobs."
EFF national co-ordinator Mpho Ramakatsa, who hails from the Free State, is adamant that the party will topple the ANC in the province.
"The ANC has not changed the lives of the people," he said. "Nepotism and corruption are rife within the provincial government."
Ramakatsa is one of a group of former ANC leaders who unsuccessfully took on Magashule in the province. Two other ANC leaders who took on Magashule – former provincial secretary Sibongile Besani and former provincial treasurer Mxolisi Dukwana – returned to the ANC and patched things up with Magashule, but Ramakatsa and others left to form the EFF with Malema.
"We are reaching every corner in the province. We are making things difficult for the ANC. [It is] chasing the EFF everywhere. The ANC was given the opportunity to govern, but squandered it," said Ramakatsa. He claimed there were people in the ANC who were afraid to admit it, but they would vote EFF come May 7.
'Industrial development strategy'
There is a strong indication that, just as Cope ate away at the ANC's support base, the EFF may do the same.
"The ANC is the only party that will be affected by the EFF and this time it's likely to be terrible for them, because we are also going to increase our vote," said the DA's Kopane.
The Free State produces more than half of the country's sorghum, nearly half of its sunflowers and more than a third of all its wheat, maize, potatoes and groundnuts, according to an article by Frontier Market Network, which was published last year on the southafrica.info website.
But the province's economy needs to be re-engineered to increase its manufacturing capacity.
"Undoubtedly we require a comprehensive industrial development strategy," the article quotes Magashule as saying in his 2012 State of the Province address.
Magashule noted that the Free State's contribution to the national economy had declined by about 11% between 1996 and 2010. It is projected to decline another 4% by 2015, largely because of the uncertainty and decline in its primary sector, mining.
Shrinking underground wealth
To return to the geography metaphor: the uncertainty caused by the Free State's shrinking underground wealth is reflected in the rather large undecided vote ahead of the poll.
The Ipsos survey found the province to have the highest levels of uncertainty about the ballot. Nearly one in 10 (9.5%) of Free Staters polled by the organisation said they did not know which party to vote for.
But it is not clear whether they don't know, don't want to say, or perhaps don't care.