Durban - ANC representatives in the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature always tease their IFP counterparts by saying that when the IFP returns to the legislature after the May 7 elections, so small would the number of its representatives be, that they would fit comfortably in a sedan.
Back in 1994, the ANC members charge, one would have needed at least a bus to transport the 41 representatives of the IFP – today, an 18-seater taxi would be adequate.
Of course, these are comments said in jest, but there is truth behind them.
They speak to the declining fortunes of the IFP, which as a dominant force in 1994 had garnered just over 50 percent of voter support, giving the party 41 seats in the 80-member KZN legislature.
This majority, albeit slight, has steadily diminished in subsequent polls.
After the 1999 elections the IFP could send only 34 MPLs, while in 2003 the floor-crossing period cost it two seats. After the 2004 elections it had only 30 MPLs, and in the last election (2009) it managed to get just 18 seats.
The IFP now finds itself in a tricky position as the official opposition in KZN.
It is a position the party would like to protect, but given its declining margins – it has been declining at an average of 6.9 percent per election – nothing is certain.
Now the IFP has the National Freedom Party (NFP) – its “own” splinter party – threatening the status quo.
The ANC is almost certainly guaranteed a victory in this province during the May 7 elections.
There will be a tussle for second position between the DA, IFP and NFP.
With the DA growing at a very slow pace in KwaZulu-Natal (0.8 percent in 2009), it is either the IFP or the NFP who are more likely to take the title.
NFP leader Zanele kaMagwaza-Msibi told supporters during her election campaign that her party aimed to wrest control of KZN from the ANC.
But should it fail, the NFP has its eye on being the official opposition – a more realistic proposition.
The NFP is only three years old, but it has been buoyed by the support base it has managed to take away from the IFP.
The party went to the 2011 local government elections as a three-month-old entity, but surprised many when it emerged as the fourth-largest party in the country after the ANC, DA and the IFP.
In that election the NFP got 644 917 (2.4 percent) of the ward and PR votes, while the IFP got 954 021 (3.57 percent).
The votes the IFP got were less than half of the 2.1 million it received in 2006’s local government elections.
This clearly showed that the NFP had been a huge factor in the IFP’s decline.
The 2011 results left the IFP with an outright majority in only two of the 62 municipalities in KZN.
The NFP had become kingmaker and it chose the ANC as its partner in what has been described as an unstable relationship.
While jumping into bed with the ANC angered some NFP members, it gave them control of strategic municipalities like the Zululand district, which the IFP had won, but without an absolute majority.
The district is one of the poorest, but one which has for many years been considered the heartland of the IFP.
A victory in that region was a major coup for kaMagwaza-Msibi, who returned to the municipality as mayor – almost a year after she was unceremoniously removed from that position by the IFP.
Apart from a moral victory, having control of these municipalities has meant that the NFP has tasted the levers of power and can dispense patronage to some members and funders.
Meanwhile, some disgruntled members have left the IFP, including three councillors in Nongoma who left in August last year.
Three by-elections were called in Nongoma after the resignation of the councillors from wards 5, 10 and 11.
The heavily contested by-elections were won by the ANC (one ward) and the NFP (two wards).
But the IFP successfully challenged the results at one ward, claiming that some special votes had not been counted.
The IEC is expected to start the election afresh.
Even if the IFP were to win the by-election re-run, it would be poor compensation as the party lost two of its three former wards.
To the IFP’s credit, it has won some by-elections – including Nkandla, which led to the party running that municipality.
But by-elections can hardly be used as the absolute and fair test to gauge party support for a general election.
Last year saw the IEC postponing at least three by-elections after massive electoral fraud was uncovered. Voters were bussed in from various areas to register where the by-elections were held to influence the results.
The IFP has claimed that since the split with kaMagwaza-Msibi and company, many members have returned to its ranks.
The NFP, meanwhile, claims it has been growing at the expense of the IFP.
At their manifesto launches in Durban recently, each of the two parties tried to pull the crowds to show their strength.
There have been many press conferences and there will be many to come, announcing the defection of members from one party to another.
At the IFP manifesto launch, its leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, was very much alive to the threat that smaller opposition parties pose to his support base.
Any vote for opposition parties would only weaken the opposition, he warned supporters, adding that his was the only tried and tested alternative to the ANC.
But kaMagwaza-Msibi, who is regarded as a champion of service delivery by NFP supporters in Zululand, is also hoping to secure her ticket to the legislature or the national parliament.
At the time of writing she had not pronounced which house she would choose, as she appears on both the national and the provincial legislature lists.
Insiders suggest that kaMagwaza-Msibi will only move to take a seat in the provincial legislature if she is guaranteed the position of leader of the official opposition.
This puts kaMagwaza-Msibi in a quagmire.
First, she has been using Zululand as a base from which to grow her party – as Helen Zille has done with the DA in Cape Town and the Western Cape.
Also, if the NFP becomes the official opposition, it places kaMagwaza-Msibi’s party in a difficult position – it would find itself on a collision course with the ANC at provincial level while the two parties are coalition partners in almost a third of KZN’s municipalities.
For the NFP this election is about proving that it is here to stay and that its successes in 2011 were not a flash in the pan – something fuelled by the hype associated with the formation of a new party.
The IFP is quick to point out that many obituaries have been written about the party, but it has proven its critics wrong and will continue to do so.
Whatever the electorate decides on May 7, it could prove to be a make-or-break situation for both adversaries.