Cape Town - The Northern Cape, with its arid landscapes and diamond abandoned mines, is fertile ground for opposition promises of a better future and likely to see one of the closest provincial contests in the May elections as the Democratic Alliance (DA) tries to force the ruling African National Congress (ANC) below the 50 percent mark.
Three weeks before voting day, the two parties are polling neck and neck and DA's message to the province's roughly 625,000 voters is simple -- in a quarter of a century the ANC has brought them nothing but corruption and grinding poverty. Local unemployment is put at around 40 percent and more than half of families survive on social grants.
The Institute for Race Relations has termed the province the "dark horse" of the poll and pointed out that the ANC managed to grow here in the past partly because a swathe of the North West, a party stronghold, was incorporated into the Northern Cape in 2000.
"But the political capital that came with the shift seems to be reaching the end of its shelf life," it said, noting that the gap between the two biggest parties have almost halved over the years."
ANC national chairman and the minister of mineral resources, Gwede Mantashe, wryly countered that these incorporated areas have not fallen off the map and remained ANC strongholds. The party's provincial chairman Zamani Sauls stresses that only the ANC has a presence in all of the province's 203 wards.
"Those areas are still there, they haven't been taken away. I think we will do well in the Northern Cape, I am confident we will clear 50 percent," Mantashe told ANA.
"We've been in and out of there and back," he added, pointing to an insistent campaign drive that last weekend included Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom.
James Selfe, the chairman of the DA federal executive, said he believed depriving the ANC of a majority was "doable", and deserved.
"It has just been one story of corruption after another and the people of the province deserve better because just about every opportunity there has been squandered."
It's too soon to forget the scandal of former provincial ANC chairman John Block who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2016 for money laundering and corruption which involved leasing office blocks to the local government at inflated prices. A year earlier, the ANC won the Northern Cape by 64 percent and Block was seen as a potential future premier.
Instead, he has been held up by Mmusi Maimane as a symbol of a thieving, apathetic ruling class as he campaigned from Kuruman and Douglas to sell the DA's vision of jobs created by reviving local industries like game farming, agriculture and mining.
The template is the unabashedly free market, developer-friendly approach it has driven in the Western Cape since 2009 and targeting the Northern Cape, along with Gauteng, is part of its strategy of consolidating power from the bottom up by controlling more municipalities and provinces to persuade voters that the party would govern better than the ANC at national level.
"Ten years later, the Western Cape is unrecognisable from the province the ANC left behind. It is now South Africa's best performing province on every single measure... that is what the Northern Cape deserves too," he said last week in Briepaal, where he claimed the ANC's last effort was building 180 flush toilets some 12 years ago.
"Here in this small community alone there are over 800 bucket toilets...The fact that they cannot and will not tackle this problem is proof that they simply do not care. "
But this comes at a time when the DA's record of governance - and its vote share - in the Western Cape is under challenge from an ANC no longer weighted down by Jacob Zuma and from Patricia de Lille, who was a strong opposition force in the Northern Cape when she headed the Independent Democrats. With her "Aunty Pat" folksiness to the fore, De Lille has gone from Calvinia to Kimberley to Okiep and spoken with conviction of the deprivation of the Coloured community of the Northern Cape, saying she would build houses, hand over title deeds and make sure children went to school.
She has declared her fledgling GOOD Party ready to go into coalition whoever wins the most votes.
The Economic Freedom Fighters is also trying to make inroads on its familiar turf, in this case mining communities fallen on tough times, with similar promises of jobs and development, though arrived at via land expropriation and more state intervention in mining.
EFF leader Julius Malema promised, in an address to voters in Kuruman, that the province would become "a construction site" yielding jobs for the poor.
But the party has been in turmoil here with with three councillors in the key John Taolo Gaetsewe (JTG) municipal district -- which includes Kuruman, Laxey and Churchill -- expelled for accusing its top leadership of abusing party funds and indulging a love for French label Louis Vuitton while selling the province's poorest "false hope".
Selfe said the real competition was not the EFF, reasoning that: "I think the EFF performs better in places with a very high population concentration. The Northern Cape is very sparsely populated."
Mantashe dismissed both the EFF's campaign tactics and notions that mining as an industry was in deep trouble in the province.
"Mining is going well in the Northern Cape. I was there two weeks ago. The iron ore price has recovered from its slump and manganese is also recovering. And those are the two core minerals now," he said.
"The EFF will also try to grab what they can get. And we're not going to run after them in terms of policy because that will just be populism. We will not be lead by them. We have our policies, and we have our processes, and the ANC has recovered."
The head of politics and governance at the IRR, Gareth van Onselen, said the ANC's majority may survive by a hair's breadth, but "it is going to be close" and any EFF growth could play a role.
He said Maimane's ambitions of winning the Northern Cape were realistic only in the long run.
"When all is said and done, this will be the DA’s real target in this election: to do as much damage to the ANC’s fragile majority in the Northern Cape as it can, and so set the scene for 2024.
"History suggests all the relevant forces are behind the DA. It is not likely to achieve its formal goal in this election but, informally, and in the long term, it is all set to go perfectly according to plan."
African News Agency (ANA)