Who will win next year?

President Cyril Ramaphosa Photograph:Phando Jikelo/African News Agency/ANA

If rumours are to be believed, we could go to the polls as early as April next year, in what will arguably be the most contested election since the dawn of democracy.

Although President Cyril Ramaphosa has yet to make any official announcement in this regard, which he would typically only do after consulting with the head of the Independent Electoral Commission, he did allude to the possibility in New York, while delivering the David Rockefeller lecture.

“So the ANC is finding traction once again. And I’m confident that it should be able to win the next elections quite easily, which will be held next year, before May of 2019. So we go to those elections renewed, united, and feeling much stronger than we have in the past,” he said.

But is the ANC really united, or was that just wishful thinking?

Fast forward a few days to Sunday, when Mr Ramaphosa delivered the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela memorial lecture at the Johannesburg City Hall, and he is singing a slightly different tune.

“The NEC is in session right now. We have just come from that meeting and in that meeting, comrades, I can assure you the majority of the discussion is about unity,” said Mr Ramaphosa. “Finding ways to unite the African National Congress. The discussion on how we can forge unity can disappear so that we unite the African National Congress and the membership.

“Now, this question of the unity of the ANC is non-negotiable. We do not even want to stand by and negotiate for it. It has to happen. Whether we like it or not, the ANC must be united.”

But is it as simple as exhorting the faithful to set aside the deep divisions that plague the ANC, for the much needed unity to miraculously come to pass?

A brief tour of recent history would suggest that the fissures in the ANC are too wide, the factionalism too divisive, for it to be wished away, and wishing it away, is what Mr Ramaphosa’s exhortations amount to.

In the lead-up to the ANC’s 54th elective conference, the internecine warfare that the bitterly opposed camps waged – Ramaphosa vs Dlamini Zuma – exposed the extent of the divisions in the party, ably fueled at every turn by past president Jacob Zuma, who gleefully stoked every fire that broke out, in an attempt to get his ex-wife elected president of the ANC and the country.

While we cannot profess to absolutely know the mind of Mr Zuma, it would be safe to surmise that his motives were not entirely selfless and altruistic, if recent events, including damning testimony before the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture are anything to go by.

Mr Zuma’s bomb-shell announcement of free tertiary education for the poor – annual household income of R600 000 can hardly be classified as poor – with an implementation time line of three months.

The last-minute, late-night expropriation without compensation (EWC) resolution at the elective conference, which Mr Ramaphosa is said to have hastened back to Nasrec in an unsuccesful attempt to thwart.

The to-ing and fro-ing between Mr Zuma’s presidential residence in the dying days of his presidency, as Mr Ramaphosa, now president of the ANC but not yet the country, laboured indefatigably to ease Mr Zuma out of office with the least damage to a party that was haemorrhaging unity and arguably support as well.

The deployment by the NEC of Jesse Duarte and Ace Magashule – both publicly arduous Zuma praise singers – by the NEC to deliver the coup de grace letter to Mr Zuma spelling out what action the ANC would take if he did not step down willingly.

The mystifying and lengthy delay in Mr Ramaphosa announcing his compromise cabinet some weeks after he was sworn in as president of the Republic.

The utter disregard for NEC directives that ANC members who chose to support Mr Zuma during his various court appearences were explicitly instructed that they did so in their personal capacity, and that they may not wear party regalia at any such jamboree, enjoying a level of attention akin to that of a piece of toilet paper being put to good use.

But does any of this make a jot of difference when it comes to the looming election?

Whereas a year ago most everybody was predicting an embattled ANC might well poll below 50% nationally and in more than just the Western Cape provincially, those predictions are being rapidly revised.

Clearly Mr Ramaphosa’s charm offensive has made significant inroads locally, and if the cautiously optimistic noises from the international community, investment and otherwise, are anything to go by, overseas as well.

A recent opinion poll by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) suggests that the ANC will poll 52% nationally, the DA 23% and the EFF 13%.

It also asserts that the land reform question, although it currently dominates our national political discourse, is seen as being of least importance as a priority issue for government.

Although it is likely to be the issue which defines Mr Ramphosa’s presidency, land reform is not, nor will it likely be in the future, the burning issue at the polls.

What matters more according to the IRR’s poll, are jobs and unemployment, drugs and drug abuse, crime and insecurity, illegal immigration and a whole lot more, with land reform barely a blip on the horizon.

So, the DA isn’t going to lead an opposition coalition government, nor is the ANC likely to climb into bed with the EFF to change the constitution to give effect to EWC, but the ANC will get a majority in the National Assembly and in most provinces.

Settle in for the long haul.