Battle for the Zulu heartland hotting up

2011-04-30 15:34

It’s about 1pm on a Tuesday afternoon. A team of National Freedom Party (NFP) volunteers led by Jeremiah Mavundla, an IFP Nongoma councillor fired for backing the party’s then national chairperson, Zanele Magwaza-Msibi, is busy campaigning on the road about 20km west of the Zululand town.

Mavundla and his team are all in orange T-shirts, carrying loudhailers and extolling the virtues of Magwaza-Msibi, who left the IFP in February to start the NFP.

There’s nothing remarkable about the scene: they hustle locals for an audience. Some punters listen to them, others walk away. It’s everyday political campaigning, with the May 18 election only weeks away. And that, in itself, is remarkable.

In every election since 1994, Nongoma and nearby Ulundi have been political hotspots, areas characterised by outbreaks of violence, ongoing intimidation and a lack of freedom of association.

The two towns, along with Vryheid (Abaqulusi), eDumbe (Paulpietersburg) and uPhongolo, have been the scenes of the fiercest battles between the IFP, which has locked the area down since apartheid days, and the ANC, which has fought tooth and nail to get a foothold in the crucial Zululand district municipality, under which the five towns fall.

In the run-up to the 2009 provincial and national poll, Nongoma was the scene of a hardcore standoff when IFP members attempted to prevent participants reaching the first major ANC rally to be held in the area. Police intervened and the IFP group was dispersed with stun grenades.

Earlier election campaigns in Zululand had been marked by the same kind of aggression. In 1994 three ANC campaigners were killed in broad daylight in an attack on a convoy of canvassers at Ulundi; in 1999 party agents had to flee Nongoma; in 2006 police had to form a human wall between ANC leaders addressing a crowd in Ulundi and a sea of IFP members baying for their blood.

Two weeks ago a convoy of ANCYL activists who had threatened to campaign at IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s home at nearby Nkonjeni and “recruit his wife and children” were blocked by armed IFP members. Police – rightly – chose to allow the blockade to stand and refused to disperse the IFP crowd.

The underlying message was clear: the ANCYL campaign did not justify the potential for loss of life and injury that dispersing the crowd would have raised.

Ironically, while the ANCYL and the IFP were staring each other down, the ANC proper was campaigning down the hill at Ulundi with no interference from anybody.

The history of violence has been driven by the strategic importance of Zululand to all the parties.

Firstly, the district is one of the last in which the IFP has, thus far, managed pretty well to keep the ANC out.

The IFP remains a powerful force in Ulundi and Nongoma, despite electoral losses elsewhere.

It maintained control in the 2006 local government elections, taking all but six of the 34 seats in the district.

Secondly, Zululand holds powerful significance for both the ANC and IFP. Key figures from the history of both parties hail from the area, which is also the seat of the Zulu monarchy, which has traditionally held great influence over locals.

In an area which is so poverty-stricken, control of the municipality’s R632?million budget is a tool for maintaining patronage and gives whoever has control a number of tenders, jobs and development projects to meet the needs of supporters and grease the wheels of power.

The birth of Magwaza-Msibi’s NFP introduces a new element to the traditional battle over Zululand. The fledgling party now creates a three-way battle for power.

Mavundla and his team are acutely aware that for his party Zululand is do-or-die territory: if the NFP cannot make it in the district where Magwaza-Msibi was a highly popular district mayor for eight years, they won’t make it anywhere.

“We know we have to do well here if we are going to survive,” he says.

“If we do enough we can return Zanele as mayor and consolidate what we have done so far. People here love Zanele and we believe the way the IFP has treated her and the rest of the local leadership will result in us winning more votes.”

It is for this reason that the NFP leader has held a series of events in Zululand and will end her campaign for May 18 with four days of rallies throughout the district.

Zululand district mayor Blessed Gwala, who is the IFP mayoral candidate, believes that the cultural and historical significance of the district, combined with the IFP’s relationship with its voters, will be enough to hold off both the ANC and the NFP.

“We have done very well here and are close to our voters. I believe we have done enough to maintain our control over the district,” says Gwala.

“There may be a dent but that dent will not be any real threat to us here.”

Mkhawuleni Khumalo, the ANC’s Zululand chairperson and likely mayor-elect, believes that the greater political space in this election campaign may be the key to dislodging “the IFP and its attitudes” from Zululand.

“In the past people would have been killed for showing themselves as ANC. That has now changed. The ANC was presented as some kind of monster but people are voting for us and joining the party.”

Khumalo believes the fact that ANC president Jacob Zuma hails from rural KwaZulu-Natal also helps the party’s cause somewhat in Zululand.

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