On Wednesday the future of the entire municipal council of Nquthu – all 17 ward seats and all 16 PR seats – will be decided in a municipal-wide set of by-elections. This KwaZulu-Natal local municipality was the only one in the whole country that failed to elect a mayor or a council speaker after the 2016 municipal elections, and subsequently failed to get any kind of government business done.
While the rest of local government managed to jump-start their respective bureaucratic engines after the late-winter polls, coaxing state machinery into various states of dynamism (some municipalities humming along, some sputtering in fits and starts), Nquthu remained inert and frozen. A coalition led by the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) including the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) held 17 seats to the 16 seats of the coalition formed National Freedom Party (NFP). On paper the IFP had the numbers to lead a coalition government. In council, however, neither side could do enough to elect their preferred candidates to the top executive positions.
In February Ms Nomusa Dube-Ncube, the KwaZulu-Natal MEC of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, dissolved the municipality and a fresh round of elections was announced. This dissolution, while not an everyday event, has its precedents: councils have been dissolved in Mtubatuba and Mogalakwena.
Other aspects of the run-up to the by-election which are of interest but have (in some cases unfortunately) happened before include: alleged plots of political assassination, accusations by opposition parties of ANC vote-buying, and the courting of traditional leaders by the DA. In particular the political violence, or the threat of violence, has become strongly associated with politics in the province.
What has been unusual is the intense levels of politicking and campaigning ahead of Wednesday’s by-elections. Almost all of the ANC’s top six have visited Nquthu in the past few weeks. The DA’s national and provincial leaders have campaigned door-to-door for weeks too, and the IFP, EFF and NFP have also been shaking hands, kissing babies, and making grand promises to the Nquthu electorate.
Nquthu has strategic and symbolic importance to the three biggest parties in the municipality and the region (the ANC, IFP and NFP) because each party is entering the by-elections at a critical point in its own story. The ANC needs to reestablish itself as a dominant force in the region. The IFP needs to consolidate the gains its has made in the region over the last five years. The NFP needs to prove that it still exists as a political force, because the party has been careering towards oblivion.
This story is as much about geography as it is about mathematics and history; Nquthu neighbours the Nkandla municipality and it’s not far away from Ulundi municipality, the respective ancestral homes of the current leaders of the ANC and the IFP. There is a strong personal element to any wins and losses in the area.
To put things in perspective, let’s look at election results in Nquthu and the other municipalities of northern KwaZulu-Natal since the 2006 municipal elections. It’s a story of destruction and rebuilding (IFP), triumph and frustration (ANC), and precocity and enervation (NFP). It’s a story of changing fortunes, decline, survival, rebirth and false pregnancies (in a metaphorical sense, of course).
In 2006 the IFP was still a political force in north KwaZulu-Natal and the party swept Nquthu with almost three quarters of the vote, winning 22 seats out of 30 and taking 14 of the 15 wards. The party may have been in a long-term decline since 1994 but, to date, this had been gradual and incremental. This trend was to accelerate over the next five years, driven by two political players: Ms Zanele Magwaza-Msibi and Mr Jacob Zuma.
Before 2011 Ms Magwaza-Msibi had been a rising star in the IFP. She started out as a hardworking, dedicated municipal councilor who quickly advanced to become Mayor of the Zululand district, then chairperson of the IFP and finally the party’s candidate for Premier in the 2009 provincial elections.
There was talk of her ascending right to the top of the party and taking over its leadership when Mr Mangosuthu Buthelezi retired. Somewhere between the 2009 and 2011 elections, however, Ms Magwaza-Msibi left the IFP, formed the NFP, won a whole mess of seats and formed ruling coalitions with the ANC across 19 municipalities in northern KwaZulu-Natal, breaking the IFP’s stranglehold in the region.
In 2009 the ANC thrashed the IFP in the provincial elections, taking over 60 percent of the vote (compared with about 40 percent in 2004). A Zuma presidency and a strong provincial team gave the party a decisive mandate. It’s no coincidence that Mr Zuma hails from the very area where the IFP’s power was drained away.
The 2009 electoral results probably birthed the NFP. In the wake of the IFP’s poor showing Mr Buthelezi decided that it would, in fact, be better to retain control of the IFP, possibly in perpetuity. Ms Magwaza-Msibi found that she couldn’t progress any further in the party and, being young and ambitious, decided to whittle her own ladder to the top since the IFP one had run out of rungs.
In the 2011 municipal elections the IFP’s decline became precipitous. The number of municipalities under the control of the party fell from over twenty to just two – Ulundi and Msinga. The map below shows the extent of the ANC’s rise in the northern half of the province, thanks to the NFP’s dilution of a traditional IFP stronghold.
Observe the stark contrast between the top and the bottom of the map (and note that Nquthu municipality is sandwiched between the two IFP municipalities). By 2011 the ANC had cemented its control of the province’s southern municipalities, plus the metro (Ethekwini) and the industrial nodes of Newcastle and Richards Bay (Umhlathuze). The rural, traditional and disproportionately impoverished northern municipalities were tougher nuts to crack.
The ANC had previously found it difficult to campaign in these IFP strongholds since there was a real risk of violence to its members and it didn’t have a firm grasp on the levers of power that are peculiar to the province.
KwaZulu-Natal is the only province with a dedicated budget for the Zulu royal family and where political power filters all the way down through the structures of traditional authority. There are voting districts and wards where constituents are told how to vote and where voting can happen en bloc according to the instructions of the local traditional authorities. (This helps to explain why Mr Mmusi Maimane, the DA leader, was treading the line between paying his respects and offering his obeisance to traditional leaders in Nquthu this past week.)
The ANC’s provincial success in 2009 laid the foundation for its success in 2011, but it could not have taken control of northern KwaZulu-Natal without the NFP.
In the 2011 elections Nquthu was won by an ANC-NFP coalition as the IFP’s share of the vote in the municipality slumped from 74 percent in 2006 to just 40 percent. The IFP and the ANC each won 14 seats out of 34 but the NFP’s five seats gave the ANC-led coalition the majority it needed.
The map below shows the ANC’s share of the ward vote in 2011. The party did best in the wards in the northern part of the municipality:
The IFP retained control of most of the wards in the east and south of the municipality:
The NFP won two wards in the central part of the municipality to go with the party’s three PR seats:
If you click on the various wards you’ll see how a genuine three-horse race pans out. The two wards won by the NFP (Wards 9 and 11) were won with just 37 percent and 46 percent of the vote respectively. In 2011 (and in the by-elections to follow), across many wards in this part of the country 50 percent wasn’t necessarily the critical threshold. The divide-and-conquer strategy of the ANC meant that the IFP just had to be weakened enough for the ANC or the NFP to win a plurality of the vote.
You can also see the proximity of Nkandla and Ulundi on the map. For Mr Zuma and Mr Buthelezi, victory in the area is not just about party patronage and largesse, but about being able to claim that you have the support and mandate from your very neighbours. Who can forget Ms Jesse Duarte’s very vocal – and extremely premature – pronouncements of Nkandla being back in the hands of the ANC, before all of the election results had come in?
You would be forgiven for thinking at this point that the IFP was not long for this world and that the NFP would spread its wings and its area of control. A funny thing happened on the way to the ANC-NFP after-party, however. The IFP began to claw back its erstwhile municipalities, by-election by by-election. The NFP spun its wheels for three years before personal tragedy struck Ms Magwaza-Msibi. The Zuma charm was found to have a remarkably short half-life, or maybe the ANC’s party structures had more urgent business than winning elections.
Between 2011 and 2015 the IFP won a handful of strategically vital by-elections in some of the very municipalities where the ANC-NFP majority was as slim as one seat. In a December 2012 round of by-elections the party won a ward off the NFP in Hlabisa and another off the ANC in Nkandla. In 2015 the IFP repeated the trick with a by-election win in Ntambana. The party had regressed from control of twenty municipalities to just two in 2011, but by 2015 the IFP’s tally was up to five.
The IFP’s ascendancy was mirrored by the NFP’s collapse and disarray. The party’s coalition with the ANC was not supported by the rank-and-file in the NFP with the same fervour as its leadership. The momentum seemed to have drained out of the party, and it didn’t improve on its 2011 successes in the 2014 elections – in most areas it lost votes.
Ms Magwazi-Msibi was given the position of Deputy Minister of Science and Technology in Mr Zuma’s 2014 cabinet, taking her even further away from the epicenter of her party. Sadly she suffered a stroke only six months into her new position. Without her input, even remotely from Cape Town, her party more or less stalled. Its leadership failed to register in time to contest most of the municipalities in the 2016 elections.
In fact, the only municipality where the NFP was registered to contest the 2016 elections was (you guessed it) Nquthu.
The map below shows which parties and coalitions were in control after the 2016 elections:
The IFP was back in control of five municipalities outright, was in coalition in three others (not Nquthu, although the party leads a majority coalition) and has a stake in the control of two other municipalities (the ones labelled ‘Its Complicated) on the map. In Jozini municipality the IFP leads a minority government and in eDumbe the party has a power-sharing arrangement with the ANC, which raises the question, if the ANC and IFP can share their toys in eDumbe, why can’t they do the same in Nquthu?
The obvious answer is that decisions made in one area are not always easy to replicate in another: the DA-EFF coalitions in the Gauteng metros haven’t led to a similar coalition in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro. Nquthu is unlike any other municipality because the NFP has seats there, and the ANC-NFP coalition is still nominally in effect. The NFP has pretty much turned out to be the IFP’s version of COPE (launched with great fanfare, mired in ignominy just five short years later) and is now fighting for its life.
The DA and EFF believe that they can grow their support on the back of a weakened ANC. The ANC cannot be seen to be in further retreat in the province or the region – KwaZulu-Natal was the only province where the party grew its support in the 2014 provincial elections. For the IFP there’s a chance to take control of a second district (winning Nquthu should deliver Umzinyathi district to the IFP also) and for Mr Buthelezi to look his neighbours in the eye when he travels from Ulundi. Mr Zuma currently doesn’t have that luxury.