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OPINION: #Elections2016: Why the end is really just the beginning

The sound and the fury of the election period is over. Mercifully some might say. Yet that has not stopped some parties from grabbing the headlines. Monday saw Julius Malema and his EFF colleagues taking tea with former President Thabo Mbek i at his home. No one really knows what was discussed but the entire event was a bit of a curiosity. ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe immediately said that Mbeki could meet whomever he chooses. Quite. Except what message Mbeki was trying to send and did it matter? One can't help but think back to the recent bitter history between Malema and Mbeki. After all it was Malema who was instrumental in President Jacob Zuma's messy ascent to power. It's easy now to only remember "Pay back the money!" and not, "We will kill for Zuma!" back in 2007.

But that's politics. Whatever the message the incident is unlikely to sway voters.

In the meantime, the ANC has said it has "done enough" ahead of the elections. There is, though, a nervousness from the ANC in relation to Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay. The DA held a very slick final rally in Dobsonville at the weekend in an attempt to get out their vote and try to persuade a raft of undecided voters. But slick is one thing, winning votes quite another. The polls, limited as they are in South Africa, show some interesting shifts this week.

The highly publicised electoral survey conducted by Ipsos-eNCA initially showed the ANC trailing significantly behind the DA in the three highly-contested metros. Last week's Ipsos-eNCA poll showed party support in Tshwane for the DA at 41 percent, the ANC at 26 percent and 'undecided' at 11 percent, roughly the same percentage as the EFF. This week those numbers have shifted quite significantly with the ANC polling at 47 percent, the DA at 43 percent and the EFF at 9 percent.

In the hotly contested Nelson Mandela Bay, the DA was at 43,6 percent, the ANC at 29,5 percent and 'undecided/won't' say at 11 percent last week, though this week the ANC shifted to 37 percent, with the DA still in the lead at 44 percent and the EFF at 6 perecent.

Last week, polls were indicating an equally tight race in Johannesburg where the DA polled at 36 percent, the ANC at 32 percent, 'undecided/won't say' at 13 percent and EFF at 9 percent. The latest data, however, shows the ANC at 46 percent, the DA at 41 percent and the EFF at 8 percent. This Ipsos-eNCA survey, ' Pulse of the People', included face-to-face interviews and included nearly 4,000 people over a period of a month.

The most recent Citizen Surveys polling data shows that the ANC is likely to continue its electoral dominance "though to a possibly diminished degree." This data is drawn from amongst registered voters only and shows that approximately 15 percent of registered voters are still undecided. Citizens Surveys data also finds that of the representative sample, 77 percent are registered to vote and 54 percent of those surveyed were committed to voting ANC. In the last local government election, the ANC won 61.95 percent of the vote.

The question too, of course, is whether those who are registered and undecided turn out to vote at all. There are many permutations in this election but for the ANC and the DA the most will be at stake. The ANC has lurched from crisis to crisis, mostly involving President Zuma. Since his December axing of former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene to the Constitutional Court's Nkandla judgment to various scandals related to 'state capture' and his band of cronies who seek to strip the state, it has been a year of damage control for the ANC.

In addition, the Afrobarometer data suggests that 61 percent of citizens are dissatisfied with their local government councillor and Zuma's popularity is at an all-time low. Recent violence in Tshwane and areas like Vuwani has not made this election campaign easy for the ANC. But these elections are unlikely to be decided on issues like Nene's axing, the shenanigans at SAA or Eskom or even the Guptas. This past weekend, the ANC filled the Ellis Park stadium with cheering supporters dancing along to Zuma's tune. The ANC has always been able to do the last minute electoral push like no other party. But, its support has waned over successive elections and so any losses in the three key battleground metros will be gravely embarrassing to the party - and Zuma in particular. If it slides to under 60% and sees itself beggaring in too many coalitions, there will be internal leadership consequences for the ANC no doubt. We can only wait and see.

It is trite to say that for the DA, so desperate to make inroads in Black communities and traditional ANC strongholds, this election will be a test of whether it can do that and also of Mmusi Maimane's leadership. For many he is the answer to the DA's "race challenge", yet of course Zuma this weekend shamelessly played the race card against the DA, questioning Black people who vote for the "white party", the DA. Whatever Zuma's destructive words, Maimane and others know that they will need to garner significant Black support as they look ahead to the 2019 national and provincial election. With the DA the issue has always been whether it has reached a ceiling of support across South Africa's diverse communities? As the new kid on the block, the EFF can afford to simply cruise through yet for other smaller parties like the UDM, ACDP and FF Plus, their role as kingmaker where outright majorities cannot be won, will be key. The UDM's Bantu Holomisa has though said his party will not enter coalitions with the ANC or DA.

Elections in South Africa feel rather like a dull shock to the system. The season starts with myriad posters, rallies, T-shirt distribution and opportunistic walkabouts. Sometimes it seems as if our politicians are seeing poverty for the very first time. The ANC usually does it best, going door-to-door and telling people their lives will surely improve. Yet, the reality is that for many their lives will not change radically after these elections. As former President Kgalema Motlanthe said of the ANC this past week: "We have lost our way". This is no longer the party of Mandela but rather one in which rapacious greed has overtaken service and where elections are seen as an event, somewhat like the bread and games displays of Ancient Rome.

Because, as we all know, it's what happens between elections that actually counts. Whether the corruption, violence, poor service delivery and carelessness with citizens' trust we have seen since 2011 will shift voters' mind-sets on Wednesday, remains to be seen.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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