Just months before the election, a new party is upending earlier polls and multiplying the coalition possibilities after May 29th. The uMkhonto we Sizwe Party, (MK Party), endorsed by former President Jacob Zuma, could make deep inroads into ANC support in KwaZulu-Natal, and even nationally.

Municipal by-elections earlier this month in KZN have shown the growing appeal of the party. In the Abaqulusi municipality, which encompasses Vryheid, the MK party received 19 percent of the vote. And a few weeks later, MK received 28 percent of the vote in a by-election in uPhongolo. For a party that is not even a year old, these are impressive results.

The emergence of MK threatens to change the balance of power in KZN, and even nationally. With the MK Party drawing on mainly former ANC voters, it could help push the ruling party well below the 50 percent mark on election day. Polling done by the Social Research Foundation (SRF) earlier this month shows MK has the potential to gain 30 percent of the vote in KZN. And with that and some support in other provinces it could take around five percentage points from the ANC’s share of the vote in the National Assembly.

With the ANC currently polling at about 45 percent nationally, MK could push the ruling party’s share to under 40 percent, says the Social Research Foundation. That would be a game-changer in our post-1994 politics and widens the number of permutations for coalition agreements at national level. MK could be part of a ruling coalition in KZN and help make up the gap in ANC support at national level. The rise of MK could wipe out the chance of the Democratic Alliance and the Inkatha Freedom Party ruling KZN after 29 May.

These are exceptional voting and polling results for a party which only registered last September. Its big impetus has been the endorsement from President Jacob Zuma, raising suspicions that it is essentially his political vehicle. MK only has an interim leadership and has yet to launch its manifesto, and yesterday morning its website was down for maintenance. As ANC Secretary General, Fikile Mbalula recently said of the party – “We don’t know who is in charge here.”

The party insists that it will soon have an elected leadership and that the launch of its manifesto is just weeks away.

The party has hit a deep vein of anti-Ramaphosa sentiment because of a widespread view that things are now worse than they were under the former president. Also, what appeals to much of its KZN market is its Zulu nationalism and militancy. The party’s uniform is military camouflage clothing, similar to what the veterans of its struggle-era namesake wear at some ANC party rallies.

When Zuma led the ANC, he was able to lure many voters away from the IFP and hold at least part of the mantle of Zulu nationalism. Zuma still has a high favorability rating: more than 63 percent in KZN and 29 percent nationally, according to a recent SRF poll on his popularity.

These are still very early days for the party, and much might still go wrong. The ANC has challenged MK’s registration with the Independent Election Commission on the grounds that the party’s name and trademark are closely associated with their movement’s struggle.

Another uncertainty for the party is Zuma’s role. The Independent Election Commission has said that Zuma is not eligible to be the party’s presidential candidate as he has a criminal record.

An open question is whether the leverage of MK in a coalition could be used to have Zuma’s conviction quashed. If this should arise, it would be a test of the independence of our judiciary.

While MK may do well in May, there is the big question of whether it will grow in future elections. Is the party a pop-up one-election wonder, as was the case with Congress of the People (Cope)?

Zuma is now 81 and within five years’ time may be out of politics. Questions about what happens after the Big Man departs from the scene could also be asked about the EFF. Leaders with such powerful charisma as Zuma and Julius Malema are difficult to find, and their own success is closely associated with that of their parties.

For the moment, MK is a Big Man party, and accounts for much of the reason why the polls show it will do well for a start-up party. That means that its policy positions are of secondary importance to that of its figurehead. Don’t look for deep policy pronouncements drawn up by think tanks from the new party in its manifesto.

At a rally in the Maqongqo area near Pietermaritzburg over the weekend, Zuma promised that the MK party would build a university on Robben Island for pregnant teenagers, that no child would be able to call the police on their parents, and that the party intended to do away with Roman-Dutch law.

MK is keen to demonstrate that its fortunes are not tied to its Zulu and regional identity. That is why it will be holding its manifesto launch outside of its home province. Driving through Mahikeng in North West  earlier this week, the talk show host, Sihle Ngobese, aka “Big Daddy Liberty”, said he saw as many people in MK party T shirts as he saw wearing ANC T-shirts.

He believes that MK is targeting North West because the party is trying to eat the lunch of the EFF, which has done well in the province as services and delivery have declined. “They are presenting themselves as a militant party and are fishing in the same pond as the EFF,” he says.

The ruling party should certainly be alarmed at the rise of MK, as the polls show it is mainly taking away their support. How it can counter the surge of support for Zuma is unclear. It might show that the ANC campaign strategy of highlighting what they say are successes over the past 30 years is not helping, as what counts is actual delivery. Clearly many of the electorate have short memories of state capture and the economic decline that increased under Zuma. Voting results for MK might well show that many former ANC supporters either abstained or went for a party that seemed familiar and close to their former political home.

Tensions might easily rise between MK and ANC supporters across much of KZN, but there is not much the ANC can really do about this upstart. While MK might be mostly about support for the Big Man, it is also a protest against the ANC. And it could be the crucial marginal impetus that tips the balance and forces the ANC into a national coalition.

Even if MK is cut down to size in the election in five years’ time, there are likely to be other ANC spin-offs that will further erode the strength of the current ruling party.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

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Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist. His articles have appeared on DefenceWeb, Politicsweb, as well as in a number of overseas publications. Jonathan has also worked on Business Day and as a TV and radio reporter and newsreader.