The ANC is poised to win a convincing majority in national polls on Wednesday on the back of an effective electoral machinery and a resurgence in the populous province of KwaZulu-Natal.
But beneath the headline figures, which will likely see the party coming close to the critical two-thirds majority it so urgently wants, there are signs of an important change in the political landscape.
The ANC’s victory portends an arguably more significant realignment: a shift in the political landscape which could see the Democratic Alliance and Cope work closely together and so begin the work of crafting a governing alternative for future elections.
Cope galvanises ANC
The formation of Cope put the ANC in battle mode: it threw all its campaigning talent and tens of millions of rands into the campaign. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, who spoke to the Mail & Guardian this week, predicted a two-thirds majority for his party and said the ANC strategy had been to protect its traditional support bases from the newcomer. The latest Ipsos Markinor poll, released this week, suggests the ANC will do well but that it will end with a 65% majority victory.
Mantashe denied organising events in areas where Cope events were planned. ‘It was a coincidence that we were always in the same area. The main issue was to contest and reassert the ANC in traditional ANC areas.â€
Mantashe said the ANC’s election campaign had been successful because of its decision to do away with rival power centres in the party, loyal either to former president Thabo Mbeki or to ANC president Jacob Zuma.
‘Many thought this would backfire and strengthen Cope. But as things unfolded, we became convinced it was the right decision.â€
Mantashe acknowledged that Cope’s formation had an initial impact on the ANC, but said this was no longer true.
‘We could not take the formation of Cope as a non-event. It distracted our programmes, but we went through that phase quickly and started focusing on ANC programmes.â€
The South African culture of support for the underdog has proven to be the wind beneath the ANC’s wings: while the opposition is up in arms over the withdrawal of charges against party president Zuma, the campaign is likely to be boosted by his perceived victory.
The survey said Zuma’s legal woes have not affected his party and that only the controversial behaviour of the ANC Youth League and its president, Julius Malema, have cost it support.
One-third of voters polled said they would vote for an opposition party because of Malema, while 10% said they would not vote at all because of him. More than 50% of those polled said Zuma’s legal troubles will ‘make them more likely to vote for the ANCâ€.
South Africa stands on the brink of a major political realignment, as opposition parties, particularly Cope and the DA, move quickly towards a cooperative relationship after next week’s elections.
While the elections are likely to set Cope and the DA on the road to convergence, there are also indications that the lesser parties, particularly the IFP and the UDM, will take a heavy hit at the polls.
Some analysts believe that the Zuma factor could push the IFP below 20% in its KwaZulu-Natal stronghold, from 48% in 2004.
Opposition leaders are already preparing to work together more closely to fight the ANC. The combined court challenge by the DA, Cope, UDM, ACDP and IFP to the National Prosecuting Authority’s decision to drop charges against Zuma could be a straw in the wind.
Cope second deputy president Lynda Odendaal confirmed that opposition parties are growing closer. ‘We have a more conciliatory approach, because we have the same issues. It makes sense for us to be closer,â€ she told the M&G.
The election is also likely to highlight a growing Zimbabwe-style divide between rural and urban voters, with the ANC pulling almost half of its votes from rural areas and the DA receiving almost 70% of its support from towns and cities.
Despite a vibrant and well-resourced election campaign, the ANC could lose its two-thirds majority in Parliament, preventing it from unilaterally altering the Constitution. The survey, gives the party a clear majority, with 64,7% nationally.
It predicted that the DA will drop to 10,8%, from 12,4%, while Cope will poll 8,9% and the IFP 2,7%.
Smaller parties such as the UDM and ID will also decline to 0,7% and 1,1% respectively.
Markinor polled 3Â 531 voters countrywide between February 24 and March 10 this year.
But the parties’ final vote-catching push this week will play an important role, as 4,2% of the electorate, or 900Â 000 votes, is still undecided. About 3,9% (800Â 000 voters) would not state their preference. Roughly 50Â 000 votes are needed for a party to secure one parliamentary seat.
A racial glass ceiling
Voting will continue to be mainly race-based, with 78,8% of black voters backing the ANC, while the majority of the DA’s votes come from whites (59,8% of whites sampled), coloureds (35,1%) and Indians (29,6%).
About 22,2% of coloureds surveyed will vote for Cope and 13,7% of whites, suggesting Cope is the only party likely to break racial patterns of electoral support.
The survey showed that the ANC is the party of choice for most rural voters, while Cope and DA support is concentrated in the metros.
Markinor found 69,7% of DA votes come from urban voters in areas such as Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and the East Rand.
DA leader Helen Zille campaigned nationally, but the party focused on the Western Cape, where Zille has a strong presence as Cape Town mayor.
And the parties think?
Assessing their own chances, political parties are, predictably, more optimistic than the survey.
Cope is convinced it will take between 15% and 20% of the national vote. Its first deputy president, Mbhazima Shilowa, told the M&G the party wants to govern in six provinces — Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, Limpopo, Gauteng and North West — on its own or in coalition.
The party has given up on KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State, despite president Mosiuoa Lekota and secretary general Charlotte Lobe hailing from the latter province.
Cope expects its best election result in Limpopo, where it estimates it will take 42% and be placed to lead a coalition government. An earlier Markinor survey found 30% backing in Limpopo.
In the Western Cape the party is aiming for 25% and claims to have strong support in black and coloured townships.
The DA is likely to be the province’s majority party, while falling short of an absolute majority — meaning that coalition rule with smaller parties is likely there.
In the Northern Cape Cope expects to win 35% of the vote, making it the official opposition. It expects a similar outcome in Mpumalanga.
In the Eastern Cape, once considered a Cope stronghold, a recent spate of by-election losses and the defection of regional Cope leaders to the ANC have hurt its support.
Mantashe said the ANC would use the Siyanqoba (Victory) rally, taking place simultaneously at two stadiums at the weekend, to send a clear message to ‘right-wingâ€ elements out to destroy the ANC and Zuma.