How will “Ramaphoria” affect the ANC’s electoral performance in KwaZulu-Natal, the stronghold of his nemesis, former president Jacob Zuma?
Sihle Zikalala, who backed President Cyril Ramaphosa’s opponent at Nasrec in December 2017, believes the ANC’s message of unity has resonated in KwaZulu-Natal, enough to ensure that his party would retain a grip on the province.
Despite this confident veneer, KwaZulu-Natal remains a fascinating battleground ahead of the 2019 election.
The resurgence of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the implosion of the National Freedom Party (NFP) and the “Zuma factor” in the ANC renders it an unpredictable race for the governing party.
In an interview this week after a media breakfast in Durban, Zikalala said he is convinced the party will make a strong showing, despite its drop in support to below 60% in 2016 and the internecine party conflict that led to running court battles in the province and even ongoing political killings.
In the run-up to the ANC’s watershed 54th national conference a little more than a year ago, Zikalala was at the forefront of the unsuccessful campaign to elect Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as president of the governing party.
Despite this, Zikalala has emerged not only as the chairperson of a provincial leadership elected on a “unity” slate, but also as its choice as premier candidate for the province.
Although he is the front-runner for the post of premier, whispers are emerging in ANC circles in the province that Zikalala could be given a national Cabinet post after the election.
Zikalala downplayed the nomination as premier candidate by the province’s branches, saying the matter was not a done deal.
“I don’t have personal ambition like that. I’m a person who works. I’m turning 46 this year and I believe I’ve got a bit of adaptation,’’ he said.
Zikalala, also the Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs MEC, was the number-one choice as premier candidate at the party’s provincial list conference earlier this year.
His deputy, Mike Mabuyakhulu — who was a key part of Ramaphosa’s Nasrec campaign in the province — has pulled out of the ANC lists for candidates for a government post because of the corruption, fraud and money-laundering charges he is facing.
Zikalala said he believed the party can match or better its 2014 showing of 64.52% in 2014, despite a drop to 57.48 % in the 2016 local government elections.
The drop in support came on the heels of a purge by the provincial leadership elected in November 2015, which Zikalala headed. It saw both a Cabinet reshuffle and the removal of councillors loyal to his then rival as chairperson, Senzo Mchunu, who led the Ramaphosa campaign in the province ahead of Nasrec.
Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane said last week that the party was targeting growth in KwaZulu-Natal, where the DA took 12.7% of the vote in 2014. The IFP also believes it can reclaim ground lost to the ANC and the NFP in 2014 and 2016.
Zikalala said, although the ANC in the province had not done its own polling, its assessment was that it would maintain its majority, and that the DA, IFP and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) would share about 35% of the vote.
The DA, Zikalala predicted, would remain static, absorbing some voters from the Minority Front, which has imploded since the death of its founder and leader, Amichand Rajbansi. The IFP could bounce back slightly, and the EFF would see some growth among young voters.
Zikalala said the ANC in the province had managed the transition to Ramaphosa’s leadership by following the ANC’s “written and unwritten’’ rules and accepting the outcome of the Nasrec conference.
“You must be free to talk, but talk in appropriate structures. Once a decision is taken, own that decision, live that decision,’’ he said. “Irrespective of our view going into conference, post-conference we had to accept that there is a leadership and support that leadership.
“If your candidate is successful, do not become a victim of triumphalism, allow the leadership to lead,’’ he added.
Zikalala said the ANC had, since its 2002 Stellenbosch conference, made the mistake of appointing those who were close to elected leaders and isolating supporters of unsuccessful candidates.
“In the recent divisions we suffered a lot as KZN,’’ he said. “We had to sit down and see how do we work together.’’
Zikalala said they had “engaged’’ the hard-liners from both camps, discussed issues openly and accommodated differing views to introduce a “culture of persuasion’’.
Zikalala said the party in the province was participating in the candidate vetting process run by the party’s integrity committee.
“We believe the comrades on the list will be suitable,’’ he said.
At the same time, Zikalala has maintained public support for Zuma at his court appearances and backed the former president’s deployment to campaign in the province ahead of May 8, a move that has helped to manage a potential backlash from his hardcore supporters.
Zikalala has a reputation as both an ideologue and a hard worker, and even his critics in the party acknowledge his role in stabilising the ANC in the province since Nasrec.
“Sihle has shown a lot of maturity since Nasrec,’’ said an ANC MPL from the pre-Nasrec Ramaphosa campaign who asked not to be named.
“He has built unity in the PEC [provincial executive committee], for the first time in years and we are starting to stabilise now.’’