The play of numbers in a poll where voter loyalties are wavering can determine whether president Cyril Ramaphosa returns for a second term in 2024. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Cape Town - On May 8, Cyril Ramaphosa will inevitably secure his first mandate from the South African electorate, but the play of numbers in a poll where voter loyalties are wavering can determine whether he emerges with firmer control of his divided party and returns for a second term in 2024.

Poll forecasts vary so wildly that some observers are choosing to ignore them altogether -- from 61 percent for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) according to an IPSOS poll published in March, to between 49.5 and 51 percent, according to figures released by the Institute for Race Relations (IRR) this week. 

Political analyst Richard Calland said voter uncertainty was at unprecedented levels and growing as voting day draws near.

"It is the first time we have seen that in 25 years."

By almost any prediction, two outcomes are certain. The ANC will remain in government nationally and in eight provinces - given Julius Malema's vow not to form any coalition with the Democratic Alliance - and voters will inflict a measure of punishment, tiny or dramatic, on the ruling party for the rent-seeking excesses of Jacob Zuma's two-term presidency and their impact on the economy. 

But academic and political analyst Stephen Friedman suggests the clue to Ramaphosa's future within a divided party lies not in comparing next week's result to that of 2014 when the ANC won by 62.4 percent, but rather to how it relates to the historical low of 53.9 percent in the 2016 local government elections.

"If the party has done better than in 2016, then he is going to be in good shape, he will presumably have more authority. The calculation people will make within the ANC, is that it will mean Ramaphosa has added to the ANC vote, with him as president of the ANC, the ANC has improved its position and that should strengthen his position in terms of being re-elected," Friedman said.

"It would be more difficult to read if the ANC did not do that. There may be people who say this man is not a vote winner, and then he could argue again that without him the ANC would be the opposition party, so it really depends how that process pans out. It could take a couple of years. Talk that he could be forced out next year is fantasy.

"The issue is going to be 2022," he added, referring to the ANC's next elective conference.

Many in the party will simply be indebted to him for gainful employment in a country where holding elected office often means the difference between being poor or middle class. The threat to the president and his renewal path comes instead from heavyweights he inherited from the Zuma era. 

Friedman thinks, and the Malusi Gigaba saga supports this, that Ramaphosa will leave it to the prosecuting authorities to deal with corruption allegations against the likes of ANC secretary general Ace Magashule rather than waste political capital on getting them out of the way quickly after the elections.

When the ANC in Gauteng put out a media statement at Easter claiming voters have said their continuing support for the party was conditional on it pursuing Ramaphosa's "New Dawn" ideal of a corruption-free state, it was both a warning to the old guard and a rallying cry to stop further DA growth in the key province.

This week, the DA leaked data from the party's secret polling system indicating it would get 38 percent to deprive the ANC of an outright majority in the economic centre of the country, with only 45 percent of the vote. The latest IRR survey predicts the ANC could drop as low as 42.8 percent in the province.

Yet it is not the seismic shift the DA claims if compared with the figures from 2016 when its vote share was 37.2 percent to the ANC's 45.8. 

The party's case for governing nationally by showing that it does so better than the ANC locally looks less convincing after it encountered the hard realities of running Johannesburg and Tshwane and infighting and coalition strife sent it back to the opposition benches in Nelson Mandela Bay.

In the Western Cape, its flagship project, the DA risks losing the outright majority it has held for a decade after the bruising ousting of former mayor Patricia de Lille, whose predictable cries of racism resonated with parts of the province's Coloured majority.

But by-elections have shown the DA may have over-estimated its support here for a while, and a DA insider said it seems votes the party lose next week would go to the ANC and the EFF, rather than De Lille's fledgling GOOD Party.

"We will lose votes because of it, but we don't see the votes going to her. There is a more a sense of dismay with all sides because of the infighting and so the votes are going to other parties," the party strategist said, adding there were signs that voters were defecting to the ANC because they had faith in Ramaphosa and want to strengthen his hand against the party's regressive factions and the EFF. 

The IRR puts the DA's support in the Western Cape at between 44 and 51 percent, the ANC at about 28 percent, and the African Christian Democratic Party at 7 percent, with the Economic Freedom Fighters just behind at 6.8 percent.

In an email sent to some 100 000 potential swing voters in the Western Cape on Wednesday, the DA cites these survey outcomes and concedes that if it cleared 50 percent here it would be by the skin of its teeth.

"What we do in the next week could be the difference between a DA-run Western Cape, and an ANC/EFF-led Western Cape... A few single votes could mean the difference between the DA winning or losing the Western Cape, so every vote counts! Please encourage all your friends, family and colleagues to get out and vote on 8 May."

In the Northern Cape, third on the DA's list of regional ambitions, analysts think the ANC's majority remains safe, for now. 

Nationally the DA is forecast to take anywhere between 18 and 24 percent of the vote next Wednesday, compared to 22 percent five years ago, and its strong 26-percent showing in 2016.  A setback in Mmusi Maimane's first national election as DA leader could confirm he has failed to bridge the different ideological backgrounds of its members and turn its carefully worded, reworked liberal policies into a relatable message.

Calland notes that the party remains hesitant and divided on the key issue of affirmative action, and cites research in Gauteng showing that disaffected ANC voters were leaning towards the EFF rather than the DA.

"When you have competing ideological positions and divisions in a party, the one thing that could resolve that is good strong leadership and unfortunately what we are seeing reflects not so well on the current leader who appears not to have been able to offer consensus and a clear policy position to voters of the party."

The EFF, with scant governing record but a blunt, radical message, is forecast to grow to 14 percent from 6.35 percent in its first ever election five years ago. 

Even before one considers the impact on national politics, its strength could pose an immediate conundrum for the ANC in Gauteng where it may have to choose between forming a grand coalition with the DA or a risky one with the EFF.

"It may face a very difficult choice. It may make the strategic choice that the greater threat is coming from the EFF, but the contrary argument is that by going into partnership with them, you give them influence. Ideologically, the ANC may have more in common with the DA but that is not always the primary consideration when forming a coalition."

African News Agency (ANA)