Being from KZN, President Jacob Zuma has a huge fan base here and to them he can do no wrong, writes Bheki Mbanjwa.
Durban - There is an air of celebration as hundreds of ANC supporters pack a small community hall in Mpumalanga Township near Hammarsdale on a hot Wednesday morning this month.
Clad in ANC T-shirts, many are there to just get a glimpse of President Jacob Zuma who was campaigning in the township later that day.
Zuma has no plans to address the crowd or belt out his popular tunes to them. With many aware of this, what they really want is just to see the man, their president. As the convoy of black presidential cars snake their way into the hall complex where Zuma will get a briefing from the local leaders before embarking on a door-to-door campaign, the supporters get into a frenzy.
Press photographers have to battle it out with members of the public, who – armed with their cellphones – also want to get a shot of the president.
The crowd follows Number 1 around as he does his door-to-door campaign and later visits a shopping mall. It could have easily been a pop star in one of those cars.
As a fellow journalist points out, any celebrity would be envious at Zuma for being able to pull such large crowds on a normal weekday. But perhaps this is also symbolic of the country’s unemployment crisis. An ANC official agrees, but points out that it also symbolises the pull Zuma still has.
Many of the people here seem oblivious to the controversy surrounding the president who a month earlier had been put in the spotlight by a damning report by the public protector following a probe into the R246 million upgrades to his private home in rural Nkandla in the north of the province.
Two teenagers who are part of the crowd lining the street outside some of the houses that Zuma is visiting tell this newspaper that all they would really want from the president is to perhaps get a handshake or just to touch him.
But they will have no such luck as the president’s bodyguards keep the crowd away. Their only consolation is having seen Zuma in person.
This is the celebrity status that Zuma, who has in the recent past received hostile receptions elsewhere, continues to enjoy in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal.
At the last general elections, in 2009, when the ANC was losing voter support, KZN bucked the trend, being the only province where the ruling party had grown.
In that poll the party in KZN mustered a phenomenal increase of 15.8 percent, pushing its provincial majority to 62.95 percent. Nationally the ANC had registered a net loss of 3.79 percent to score 65.9 percent with the decline in provinces such as the Eastern Cape being as high as 10 percent.
The increase of the ANC’s voter support in KZN was not surprising, many analysts said, given that Zuma is from the province. Having been elected president of the ANC in 2007, Zuma would be the first person from the province to become state president at a time when there was also a rise in Zulu nationalism. This was the Zuma factor, they explained.
Fast-forward to 2014 and there is another factor that has become the battleground for the upcoming elections. The Nkandla factor – referring to the controversy that surrounds the costly security upgrades to Zuma’s home.
The ANC is not all that concerned about this, or so they say. Provincial ANC leaders have even gone so far as to set themselves a target of 70 percent support for the party in this province, which would go a long way in offsetting the losses expected in other provinces.
An Ipsos survey released in November put voter support for the ANC in KZN at 56.6 percent, but the real support is expected to be much higher.
Perhaps the fact that 11 percent of people surveyed in this province refused to answer the question of who they would vote for tells the story of how many can still be swayed.
Whichever way the vote goes, the ANC is content with its growth in KZN, especially in rural parts of the province, which had been largely dominated by the rival IFP.
Just last year the ANC won its first Nongoma ward in a by-election. With millions of rand being pumped into service delivery programmes in rural areas, the ANC is more confident that the controversy surrounding Nkandla will not be a factor to the rural residents where its growth is.
A visit to Nkandla on the day that Public Protector Thuli Madonsela released her report revealed how very little Zuma’s neighbours in Nkandla cared about the controversy and how some thought it was not an issue. Their views generally reflect those in townships and rural areas across the province, some analysts say.
Comments from the neighbours ranged from those who believed that Zuma with his “big family” deserved the house, to those who felt it was shameful that Madonsela dared to investigate the president’s house or even talk about the findings in public. Others were too busy going about their everyday lives to mind “other people’s business”.
When Zweli Mkhize, the ANC treasurer-general and former premier of KwaZulu-Natal, went to campaign in Nkandla this week, many thought he would have a hard time trying to defend the president, given public perceptions and the focus on Nkandla.
But his walkabout in the IFP-dominated town was smooth. Many people assured Mkhize they would vote for Zuma. All this happened in a town which had just been declared one of the poorest in the country, even though it has what is arguably one of the most expensive homes in the country.
Zakhele Ndlovu, a politics lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, believes the controversial upgrades to Nkandla are not a major issue, especially among the rural poor. The Zuma factor is still alive, he asserts.
“To many of the rural poor the issue of Nkandla is a non-issue. These are the people who are not burdened with paying (income) taxes and they don’t really see those funds used as being theirs. It is, however, a different issue when it comes to the middle class who are already burdened with high income taxes”.
In most cases, the rural poor are concerned about bread and butter issues and although some of the money spent on Nkandla upgrades could have been put to better use on service delivery, very few people seem to care, or know this.
Also counting in his favour is that Zuma is again being seen as the victim by his supporters, something he really thrives on. In the past there were groups and individuals around him who were prepared to do anything to defend the president.
Once again such groups are emerging: T-shirts with the words “hands off our president” have been seen at ANC rallies in the province, while a group of lawyers are challenging Madonsela’s report.
“He needs to be given credit for he does this well. Whenever he is cornered he has the ability to make people sympathise with him. I have personally interacted with a lot of people who see all the controversy surrounding Zuma as the continuation of his persecution,” says Ndlovu.
Zuma is a polarising figure; those who love him do so very much, while there are those who cannot stand him.
Many of the rural KZN residents fall into the former category, having defended Zuma during some of his most trying moments. It does not seem the people of the province are ready to ditch him just yet.
Besides the tight security around him, Zuma in these parts is still seen as the people’s president. It seems that with all his “middle class” troubles, Zuma can continue to count on Team KZN at the polls, which is why he still is and will be Number 1 after May 7.