Buoyed by last month’s victory in Nquthu, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) has set its sights on winning an ANC-controlled municipality in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
The party believes Wednesday’s by-election in the uPhongolo municipality will strengthen its presence in that region — and ultimately see it reclaiming control of the whole province.
The uPhongolo ward 7 by-election is a result of the murder of ANC councillor Mbhekiseni “Pat” Khumalo in December. No arrests have been made but it is regarded as one of a string of alleged political assassinations in the province.
The ANC’s victory in the uPhongolo municipality last year was marginal — securing 15 seats to the IFPs 10 — so this ward is a decider for who will take control of the municipality.
A win would also consolidate the IFP’s dominance in the Zululand district. The party currently controls three of the five municipalities in Zululand and hopes to add uPhongolo as its fourth. Last month, the IFP scored a victory in the Nquthu municipality by-elections, securing 19 council seats against the ANC’s 11.
The IFP said it didn’t want to “count its chickens before they hatched”, but it was ready to head to the polls. National chairperson Blessed Gwala said rural voters had been taken for granted by the ANC and had started to recognise the IFP as the best option.
Referring to the sudden presence of party leaders in Nquthu on the eve of its recent by-election, Gwala said: “The IFP has never lied to the electorate. No [ANC] MEC was worried about Nquthu all along. But because there was an election, people were upset by the descending of the MECs [to Nquthu] and said, ‘oh, you see, they come merely because there are elections’ .”
UPhongolo borders Swaziland in Kwazulu-Natal’s northeast. Like Nquthu, it is a small, modest municipality with a population of less than 200 000 people. Unemployment in this area is high with 50% of the population jobless.
The IFP securing this small municipality will send a strong signal about the party’s growing strength in KwaZulu-Natal. It appears to be recovering from the 2011 municipal elections, when it was reduced to controlling only two municipalities in a province that was once its stronghold. The IFP now controls seven of KwaZulu-Natal’s 43 local municipalities.
Although the IFP was cautious about speculating on its chances of victory, the ANC was less modest. KwaZulu-Natal provincial secretary Super Zuma said his party was confident it would win, even after its unexpected loss in Nquthu.
“We are busy campaigning there. The leadership of the province and the region was there last weekend. Our volunteers on the ground are also busy with campaigning,” Zuma said.
Analysts believed the IFP’s recent gains have less to do with its growing political strength and more to do with the failures of the National Freedom Party (NFP).
The IFP splinter group was disqualified from participating in the 2016 municipal elections after failing to pay registration fees on time. It is believed that NFP voters searching for a new political home may have contributed to the IFP’s growth in support.
Gwala said the party had worked hard to reclaim its support base.
“It’s not the NFP alone that made us win,” he said. “Yes, I agree that members of the NFP did make an impact but it was not just them that changed the situation.”