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How Zuma’s MK party ruthlessly outmanoeuvred the ANC in KZN

How Zuma’s MK party ruthlessly outmanoeuvred the ANC in KZN
Illustrative image: uMkhonto Wesizwe party member. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi) | Former president Jacob Zuma. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart) | Screen at the IEC Results Operation Centre on 30 May 2024. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

The MK party’s rise in just six months from nowhere to winning the most votes in KZN in last week’s general elections is unprecedented in SA politics. This is how it went down.

After the general elections last week, KwaZulu-Natal emerged with a new political reality.

It is unclear who will become provincial premier after the uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) party came from nowhere to win most of the votes in the province, just under six months after it was formed.

The MK party won more than 45% of the vote in KZN while the province’s previous rulers, the African National Congress (ANC), managed just 18%.  

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Nationally, the ANC garnered just over 40% of the vote, while the MK party got 14.58%, finishing in third place, behind the DA with 22%.

How did the MK party pull this off in such a short time?

The main reason can be summed up in two words: Jacob Zuma. The former president and current MK party leader remains a popular figure despite his controversial political career.

During campaigning, Zuma and the MK party said they wanted to scrap the Constitution and replace it with “unfettered” parliamentary sovereignty. The party said it would expropriate all land without compensation and transfer ownership to the people, under state and traditional leadership custodianship.

Zuma’s detractors said he and the MK party were pandering to Zulu ethnic nationalism to win support in KZN and other provinces with significant Zulu ethnic populations like Mpumalanga, where MK emerged as the second-biggest party.

The seeds are sown

The seeds of the MK party’s campaign were sown at the ANC’s Nasrec 2022 elective conference, where President Cyril Ramaphosa saw off his rival Zweli Mkhize to win a second term as ANC president.

Dumisani Khanyile, an MK party leader in the King Cetshwayo district, said many ANC branches were unhappy with that outcome.

“We understand the ANC very well and we knew that the ANC branches were very weak and dysfunctional. Communities were also very angry with the ANC because of a number of things, including water shortages, electricity load shedding, corruption and the ill-treatment meted out to Zuma. 

“Also, there were many members of the ANC branches who were unhappy and people on the ground said they would not vote for the ANC,” he said. 

When Zuma announced that he was ditching the “ANC of Ramaphosa” and would campaign for the MK party, many in the branches switched allegiance.

“It was an open secret that the ANC structures in KZN were dysfunctional due to factionalism. We were able to mobilise the ANC leadership in branches and get them onside. We also went to the people to ask them about their plight and they opened up to us. When the ANC leadership tried to call some people in the branches, they found that many of them had left the ANC and had now joined the MK party.” 

The uMngeni Local Municipality became the first municipality in KZN to be governed by the Democratic Alliance after the 2021 local government elections. This was largely attributed to ANC infighting in the region. 

During last week’s general elections, the MK party and the DA both got 41% in uMngeni, while the ANC got just 12%.

This surge in MK party support played itself out in many ANC strongholds throughout the province. 

eThekwini is the party’s biggest region. But here, too, its supporters did not come through.

Just over 1.2 million votes were cast in eThekwini Municipality. The MK party took 48%, followed by the DA with 23% and the ANC with 14%. The ANC’s support was obliterated in its former strongholds Umlazi, Inanda and KwaMashu.

Mthokozisi Cele, an MK youth leader and organiser in the township’s Ward 84, said, “Here in Umlazi, people love Zuma. Before the formation of the MK party, many people here were not planning to vote. But when Zuma said he is campaigning for MK, many people were inspired. 

“People here in Umlazi were angry because they often didn’t have water and had to rely on water tankers.” 

An unprecedented occurrence

Wayne Sussman, Daily Maverick’s elections analyst, said a phenomenon like the astonishing debut of the MK party had never been seen before in South Africa.

“I think Zuma and the MK party were able to capture the moment, and people related to them. To the ANC it was a whitewash. The ANC was able to win more support than the MK party in only two [KZN] municipalities — Umzimkhulu and Greater Kokstad. 

“Otherwise, the MK party performed incredibly throughout the province. It was able to use the weaknesses of the ANC to destroy the party. I think this was due to the fact that the ANC is not the same strong and formidable party any more in the province, it is much weaker than during the times when it was led by S’bu Ndebele and Zweli Mkhize [former KZN premiers].

“The MK also affected the DA, the IFP and many smaller parties in the province. Zuma seems to be this dominant figure whose popularity is unparalleled in the province, especially after the death of Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi,” Sussman said.

Zakhele Ndlovu, a senior politics lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said the ANC was caught napping.

“The ANC in KZN thought they could contain Zuma and the MK party and it seems they did not know the extent of the damage that Zuma and MK party were doing to the ANC support base. By the time they woke up, it was too late — the MK party and Zuma had eaten their lunch,” he said.

Mafika Mndebele, the KZN ANC spokesperson, told Newzroom Afrika that his party had underestimated MK.

‘A protest by our people’

“We accept the outcomes of these elections. It was a difficult election and we fought very hard. The message that has been sent by our people to us [the leadership] is very clear. People have been saying to us, ‘We love the ANC but there are things that need to change.’ These things are like fighting corruption … services delivered to our people.

“We see this outcome as a protest against us. We must also be seen to be doing these things. We’ve heard the message from our people and what we are going to do as the leadership is self-correct. This is a call to action.

“This, as I’ve continuously maintained, is a protest by our people. Our people are clear: they say, ‘We love the ANC, but leaders of the ANC must be seen to be responding to our issues and our needs and must not be complacent.’ If we do all of that, the people would come back to the ANC,” he said.

Just before the formation of the MK party, opinion polls suggested that the IFP and DA  were on course to wrest control of the province from the ANC. The outcomes of these elections were a huge disappointment to both parties, especially the IFP, whose founding leader, Buthelezi, died eight months before the elections.

IFP spokesperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa said the MK party had been formed too soon before the elections for its opponents to develop a coherent programme to counter it.

Where to from here?

The MK party still needs to form a coalition to elect a premier and rule in KZN. 

It won 37 seats in the 80-seat KZN Legislature. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) has the second-highest number of seats in the provincial legislature — 15 —followed by the ANC with 14 seats and the DA with 11. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) won two seats and the National Freedom Party (NFP) won one seat.

An MK/EFF coalition is a possibility, but their numbers would not make a majority. 

The NFP had said it would support the ANC, as it has done in many municipalities across the province since 2011 and the DA has repeatedly said it will do all it can to keep the MK away from the levers of power in KZN and elsewhere in the country.  

So, a coalition of the IFP, ANC, DA and NFP in KZN would have a majority of 41 seats.

Given their enmity, the MK party has ruled out a coalition with the ANC so far. It has not yet announced who it will nominate as the premier of KwaZulu-Natal. 

The party is disputing the election results and battling a legal challenge from Jabulani Khumalo, the man who founded and registered MK with the Electoral Commission, only to be expelled by the party two months ago. The matter was heard at the Electoral Court in Johannesburg on Monday and was adjourned.

The ANC, DA and the IFP are believed to be holding secret talks to form a minority government in KZN that will exclude the MK party. DM

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