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IFP’s influence without Buthelezi under scrutiny

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IFP launches its manifesto at Moses Mabhida Stadium. Before Zuma’s support for the MK Party earlier this year, the Brenthurst poll suggested that the ANC’s losses would go to the EFF and IFP, the writer says. Picture: Khaya Ngwenya./ March 10, 2024

By Dirk Kotzé

Much of the attention at the moment is on the nomination lists of South Africa’s political parties. KwaZulu-Natal is the province most in the spotlight because the provincial election might develop into a five-way contest between the ANC, MK Party, IFP, DA and EFF.

The MK Party is at the centre of it, not only because it is spearheaded by former president Jacob Zuma, but also because the latest opinion poll by the Brenthurst Foundation places it in a key position. The party most associated with KZN, namely the IFP, has taken a back seat. It, therefore, deserves some more consideration.

In the 2019 KZN provincial election, the IFP received 14.6 percent of the votes. Four years later, in October, – before the MK Party’s arrival – the Brenthurst opinion poll recorded the IFP’s provincial support to be 27 percent; in last month’s poll, it declined to 19 percent. At a national level, the IFP was supported by 3.4 percent of voters in 2019. The October 2023 poll recorded an increase to 7 percent in national support but last month it decreased to 2 percent.

Before Zuma’s support for the MK Party earlier this year, the Brenthurst poll suggested that the ANC’s losses would go to the EFF and IFP. After Zuma’s entry in the race, the opinion polls indicate that the MK Party “stole” much of these gains from the EFF and IFP.

The MK Party’s support is therefore coming mainly from the ANC. It leaves the ANC, IFP and DA at more or less the same level, with the MK Party 5 percent ahead of them and the EFF about 6 percent behind them. It means that the Multi-party Charter (including the IFP and DA) and the MK/EFF combination are at 39 percent and the ANC at 20 percent.

Where does it leave the IFP?

These polls compete with the fact that the IFP did well in recent local by-elections. The results supported the notion that the MK Party is winning support to the detriment of the EFF, but they did not support the prediction that the IFP is losing support in favour of MK. The IFP is engaged in a co-operation agreement with the DA in the province, which means that they do not compete against each other in by-elections but support one common candidate.

The IFP’s strengthening in KZN over the past five years or more is unexpected for many observers. It is the only major party which turned around its systematic electoral decline since 1994 into a trajectory of growth again. It happened during a time of major changes in the party, most notably introducing a new party president and the departure of its founder, Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

The leadership transition was a protracted one, starting in 2017 when Velenkosi Hlabisa was identified as the heir apparent, and which was concluded in 2019 when he succeeded Buthelezi as IFP president. Buthelezi enjoyed an iconic status in his party and predictions were that his departure would leave the IFP in limbo. The transition was not a dramatic takeover by a new leader and, therefore, there were no public contestations in the party or infighting which would destabilise it.

It is supported by the fact that the IFP leadership decided that Buthelezi would be the face of the party in this election campaign.

However, the party has not been free of controversies. In 2011, the National Freedom Party (NFP) was formed as a breakaway group and did relatively well in the 2014 provincial election, but its support declined dramatically in 2019, to the degree that it does not pose any threat to the IFP.

The NFP rebellion emphasised the IFP’s image as a party of old men. In the meantime, the party has worked on a new image, which involves the IFP’s Youth Brigade. One of its most prominent young leaders is the parliamentarian Mkhuleko Hlengwa, who is the party’s main spokesperson and also the chairperson of the national Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts. Liezl van der Merwe is another young and active parliamentarian.

The succession battles in the Zulu monarchy also negatively affected Buthelezi as the traditional prime minister. But it did not involve the IFP directly, because Buthelezi had already retired as the party’s leader. However, it emphasised the IFP’s lack of influence in matters like these, compared to the Buthelezi era when the IFP’s relationship with the monarchy was at times quite intimate.

The IFP’s identity is a product of its history. When it was revived in the mid-1970s, it was widely regarded as part of an ANC strategy to establish a presence in the KwaZulu homeland.

In 1979, however, the two political formations parted ways and in the 1980s serious conflict between the IFP and the United Democratic Front deepened their animosity for each other.

The IFP’s identity is complex because over time it developed a party programme of liberal values (federalism combined with free-market economics) combined with conservative ideals of traditionalism and Zulu identity values. With the constitutional negotiations in the 1990s, it regularly abandoned the talks and demanded official recognition of a Zulu kingdom.

It also negotiated the Ingonyama Trust in 1994 as a land tenure arrangement for traditional Zulu land managed by the monarchy. To this day, the IFP maintains close ties with the trust and claims credit that it secured the land rights of the Zulu nation.

In the coming elections, the IFP will compete against 114 other parties for parliamentary seats. It will most probably be one of the top five parties, although its main drawback is that it is overwhelmingly concentrated in KZN and does not have a national footprint.

Prof Dirk Kotzé is based in the Department of Political Sciences at Unisa