The ANC will have to wait a few more weeks for a result that will either put it back in the driving seat of the Tlokwe local municipality in Potchefstroom or make it the opposition to a Democratic Alliance-led coalition.
This week's by-election victory in two of the three contested wards boosted the ruling party's morale, but the battle is not over yet. Independent candidate Butiki "Stone" Mahlabe's victory over the ANC in ward 26 proved that the threat to the ANC in the municipality is not the official opposition DA but the internal dissent and factional battles that led to the firing of 14 councillors.
Mahlabe is one of the 14 who were fired and expelled from the party.
Although later reinstated on the instructions of the ANC's national disciplinary committee, eight of the 14 contested the by-elections as independent candidates, standing against their former party.
Until the next by-elections, the ANC and a DA-led coalition will run the municipality jointly with equal representation – 23 councillors each.
But the ANC will take advantage of a local government rule that gives the speaker a casting vote. According to the South African Local Government Association's guideline document on the roles and responsibilities of councillors and officials, the speaker can cast an extra deciding vote if the council cannot take a decision on any matter.
The Tlokwe speaker, Barei Segotso, is an ANC deployee.
By-elections were supposed to be held in nine wards this week but the Electoral Court ordered that five of them be postponed after independent candidates approached the court for a reprieve, arguing that they were unfairly disqualified from contesting the wards. A sixth by-election was postponed after an out-of-court settlement with a disqualified candidate.
Although this matter brought the conduct of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) in the province into question, the elections were generally peaceful, except for sporadic confrontations between party supporters outside some polling stations.
Mahlabe, who won 1425 of the 2335 valid votes cast for ward 26, said his victory should teach the ANC a lesson about respecting the community's choice.
"They say the ANC is a big elephant but here in Tlokwe the ANC no longer exist. We just have individuals looking after their own interests," he said.
Mahlabe said his community has blessed a coalition with any party, including the DA, as long as it ensures that their interests are looked after.
"People no longer want struggle history lectures; they want development. I'm not saying I'm perfect but I have always looked after my community."
Mahlabe said that, in the 12 years that he has been an ANC councillor, he ensured that the government built houses and schools, tarred roads and installed water and electricity in what used to be an informal settlement.
The by-elections in the remaining six wards are expected to take place some time next month. The North West MEC for local government and traditional affairs, Manketsi Tlhape, has said she is ready to proclaim the date as soon as the requisition from the IEC reaches her office.
Both the ANC and the DA have got scores to settle, depending on the outcome of the next by-election.
The ANC's first prize is to vote out the current DA mayor, Annette Combrink, who benefited from a vote of no-confidence in the former ANC mayor, Maphetle Maphetle. Disgruntled ANC councillors voted with the opposition to topple Maphetle. The councillors accused the ANC of ignoring allegations of corruption.
Should the DA-led coalition find itself in the majority, it will vote out Segotso, who they claim is frustrating the functioning of the municipality. The DA has called her a "remote control for the higher powers within the ANC".
The DA's failure to win even a single ward in this week's by-election means that the party will rely on independent candidates to strengthen its hold on the municipality. The DA has only 19 seats in Tlokwe but benefits from two Freedom Front Plus seats, one for the Congress of the People and the recent seat won by Mahlabe.
North West ANC provincial chairperson Supra Mahumapelo said this week's victory has "restored the ANC's dignity" in Tlokwe.
Fought like a national election
"In 2011 [municipal elections], people voted the ANC to run Tlokwe but the DA is now ruling Tlokwe through the back door," he said. "The DA knows that, if it was not for the problem of ill-disciplined, ungovernable and disrespectful group of ANC councillors, they wouldn't be where they are today."
The ANC said it is "more resolute" than ever to reclaim control of the council, with Mahumapelo claiming that the remaining wards are ANC strongholds.
This week's by-election was fought like a national election. The ANC enlisted the services of its Free State members who campaigned with their North West counterparts for days. National ANC leaders visited Tlokwe for over a month in a build-up to this election and provincial leaders brought in their branch members to help to convince local residents to vote the party back into the controlling seat.
On election day, ANC volunteers used minibus taxis and their own cars to ferry voters to polling stations and back home. Voters who reported to wrong polling stations were driven to the correct ones to ensure they didn't miss out on voting.
Besides the human resources that were invested in campaigning for the by-elections, several residents made their houses available to serve as ANC operational centres, where meetings were held with volunteers and their meals prepared.
But voter turnout remained low and not a single ward received more than 50% of its registered voters.
For the next by-elections, the ANC has said it will up the ante and "sharpen our strategy" with more door-to-door campaigns, visits to churches and sport grounds. It will also focus more on young people and convene more public meetings.