Fresh from winning the critical Nquthu by-election in KwaZulu-Natal and taking control of the region, the Inkatha Freedom Party now has its sights set on reclaiming the province.
Following frantic campaigning by political heavyweights, including the ANC’s president Jacob Zuma and IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Independent Electoral Commission on Thursday announced that the IFP had secured 19 council seats against the ANC’s 11 in the highly contested election.
The outcome has affirmed last year’s move by Nquthu residents to vote the municipality back to the IFP.
“We had an insufficient majority and now they’ve given us an outright majority,” said IFP provincial secretary Velenkosini Hlabisa.
“The victory at Nquthu is a message for 2019. Our target now will be working to reclaim KwaZulu-Natal.”
The disappointment from the ANC was palpable. Its chances of taking over the last council under the IFP’s control were trashed.
ANC provincial spokesperson Mdumiseni Ntuli said the party accepted the results and “recognises that the outcomes of this by-election reflect some setbacks in our support base in certain wards and this matter requires deep reflection.”
Just a day before, parties had pulled out all the stops to get Nquthu’s residents to vote in a contest for a municipality at once so unassuming and yet so sought-after.
The parties were present in a range of colours but, in reality, Nquthu was a two-horse race between the ANC and the IFP, a battle with years of history.
“Hawu, kanti nathi sibaluleke kangaka?” (Wow, so we are also this important?), remarked an elderly woman as she entered a voting station where KwaZulu-Natal Premier Willies Mchunu was present to observe the morning’s proceedings. Since last week, parties brought their leaders to Nquthu to campaign there.
Locals asked themselves why this election, in such a small place, was drawing so much attention.
Nquthu is a municipality in northern KwaZulu-Natal’s uMzinyathi district, between the Msinga, Nkandla and Ulundi municipalities. It has a population of 165 000 and an unemployment rate of 64%. Its budget for the 2016-2017 financial year is R258-million.
Given its small size, the effort exerted by the IFP and the ANC to take control of it would appear disproportionate to what it has to offer.
But the battle was not necessarily over control of the local municipality but for control over the uMzinyathi district and, ultimately, control of the northern region of the province.
For Zuma and Buthelezi, having control of the area is as much about political power as it is about sentiment. Both originally hail from the area.
At the time of the by-election this week, the IFP had a total of 39 seats in the uMzinyathi district and the ANC had 33. The 33 in Nquthu decide who controls the district and, ultimately, the allocation of funds and services to the four local municipalities under it.
“There are a lot of resources that are there in uMzinyathi. So they [ANC] want power from Nquthu in order to take over the municipality of uMzinyathi,” the IFP national chairperson, Blessed Gwala, said. “uMzinyathi has not yet been put in place; the deciding factor is Nquthu.”
This battle goes much further back. Northern KwaZulu-Natal was historically an IFP stronghold. But in 2011, former IFP member Zanele Magwaza-Msibi formed a splinter group, the National Freedom Party (NFP), which took part of the IFP’s following with it.
The ANC, by forming coalitions with the NFP in the 2011 municipal elections, was able to take control of most of the province’s north. Nquthu was one of the many municipalities the ANC took from the IFP, which was then only two municipalities away from being wiped out in the region.
Since then, the ANC has seen its own share of setbacks. A series of by-elections in 2012 and the 2016 municipal elections delivered some lost municipalities back to the IFP.
So this week’s Nquthu by-election was a bid by the IFP to re-establish itself and an attempt by the ANC’s to entrench its rule.
“The northern part is an area that has not yet delivered sufficient support for the ANC, because it’s historically an IFP area,” said Ntuli. “So our focus now is to make sure that we consolidate and expand our support base in the northern area, and that is going to increase the voting support of the ANC towards KwaZulu-Natal.”
On voting day, the atmosphere was peaceful and happy, a far cry from the situation a few months before when there were fears of politically motivated assassinations because council members were so at odds with one another.
Residents slowly made their way to the voting stations, some of them upbeat, others begrudgingly, but all of them unhappy about having to vote again so soon after making a choice in August, when the IFP secured a slim victory.
“I’m not happy about having to vote again because it’s not our fault. But I understand that we had to do this because leaders in our municipality weren’t getting along, so what can we do?” said Nokuthula Keswa.
She is one of many people who have found themselves caught up in the political tug of war. In February, the Nquthu municipality was dissolved after ANC and IFP councillors reached a deadlock, which prevented the election of a mayor and a speaker. The delivery of services such as water to some areas of Nquthu came to a standstill for months. Water tankers parked in the Gubazi village section of the town were testament to the struggle for this basic service. And the effects of last year’s drought, when nearby streams ran dry, were still visible.
“I just want whoever wins to insert a tap for me in my yard. And a toilet. That’s all,” Keswa said. “Those who have taps in their yards are people who can afford to pay for those services. The rest of us have to walk to get water.”
Nquthu residents are also hoping for a solution to high unemployment, especially among the youth. At the Springlake High School voting station, 23-year-old Sinenhlanhla Zwane emerged from the school hall where she had just voted and made an urgent appeal to the incoming local government.
“To be honest, as young people we need jobs in Nquthu. Really, we’re sitting at home doing nothing. We were encouraged to go to TVET [technical and vocational education and training] colleges and we went. I did HR [human resources]. But I’m starting to wonder what the point of going to school was.”
Behind her emerged Bonginkosi Madide, an unemployed 30-year-old who walked for an hour from his house at the foot of a hill in an area called Ncome. For him casting his vote symbolised a gamble that he hopes will pay off one day.
“Even though I’m a bit irritated about having to vote again, I never think about not voting. I’ll keep coming back to vote for as long as they need me to, in the hope that maybe soon my life will change.”
The IFP reportedly won 58.05% of the votes, and 14 of the 17 wards. The party was allocated 19 seats and the ANC received 11 seats. The Economic Freedom Fighters, the Democratic Alliance and the NFP got one seat each.