More than a decade back, I had a memorable dinner in Buenos Aires with a former White House speechwriter for President George W Bush.

One of the guests present asked him what it was like to work for the 43rd President of the United States. Bush was famously regarded by voters as being both a regular guy and, with his mangled syntax and malapropisms, a bit dim.

The wordsmith responded:

I will tell you two things about Bush: firstly, he is not as nice as you might think, and second, he is not nearly as stupid as you might imagine.

The most prominent member of Bush’s political team was his master strategist Karl Rove, who even merited a 2003 book by his fellow Texans, James Moore and Wayne Slater, entitled Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential.

Though, according to the speechwriter, Bush in fact had plenty of his own brainpower to win two elections as president. Last week, writing in the Wall Street Journal, Rove, who views the prohibitive favourite for the Republican nomination, former president Donald Trump, with much distaste, wrote of this year’s contest between Trump and President Joe Biden:

More than any election in recent memory, this one involves contingencies, piled by uncertainties, topped by imponderables.

And a lot of those unknowables are reflected in the flaws of both Trump (indicted for 91 criminal felonies) and Biden (allegedly tipping toward senility). Disillusioned Republican scribe Bret Stephens noted: “A lot of Americans are looking at a Trump-Biden rematch as a case of the morally unfit versus the mentally unfit.”

The outcome of the November poll in the US matters hugely to the world, literally from Russia and Ukraine to Taiwan and China and Israel and Gaza, and most countries in-between.

On 29 May, some six months before Americans cast their disdainful ballots, South Africans will troop to the polls in a contest which matters hugely to the country and not so much to the rest of the world, which increasingly detaches its once admiring gaze from us to other places except perhaps for Russia, and its president Vladimir Putin – who enjoys the affection of Trump, Cyril Ramaphosa and Jacob Zuma, on which more below.

Rove’s depiction of the contingencies, imponderables, and uncertainties in the US election outcome applies though in spades to our own election.

A lot of local political oxygen is consumed on trying to recreate the fervour and excitement of the inaugural democratic poll here in 1994 and attaching it, despite deep voter disillusionment, to the 2024 vote. At first glance, it seems exaggerated over hype to compare the unique world-grabbing events of 1994 to the lesser 2024 poll. History does not repeat itself, but “sometimes it rhymes” to quote Mark Twain.


First, current opinion polls suggest that for the first time since 1994, there is uncertainty on whether the ANC will clear 50% and indeed on the identity and composition of the next government. Back in 1994, the ANC was the prohibitive favourite to win the election, but lots of uncertainty accompanied the precise percentage it would obtain, with even the saintly Mandela proclaiming himself relieved that the party did not achieve a two-thirds majority and so was unable to write the new Constitution in its own image.

But in that election, the percentages mattered for another reason: who would serve in government – since any party which cleared the 5% vote threshold would obtain seats in cabinet (and a deputy presidency in the event of 20%) as deputy president FW de Klerk and his National Party did alongside Inkatha Freedom Party (10%).

Secondly, in 1994, there was a ferocious provincial struggle for power in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. In neither province could the ANC replicate its national triumph, and consolation prizes were won by the National Party (Western Cape), and Inkatha emerged the winner in KZN.

But the same interim Constitution, which mandated national power sharing in a government of national unity, required its replication provincially, allowing the ANC to serve as junior partners in the cabinets of both provinces under premiers chosen by the NP and IFP, respectively.

In the 2024 election, it is quite possible that a party that obtains 5% or even less could emerge as the national kingmaker and navigator of the next government.

In 2024, no current poll suggests that the ANC will remotely near 50% in KZN and not in Gauteng either, which, for the first time since 1994, appears beyond the party’s grasp. History rhymes again, though, in different places and without a constitutionally mandated government of either national or provincial unity to determine how the electoral spoils will be divvied up afterwards.

‘When will the ANC split?’

The Western Cape also shows, on polls, some slippage for the governing Democratic Alliance (itself formed by fusing the Democratic Party, which obtained a paltry 1.7% in 1994 but prospered later and the declining NP). But the DA’s drop, is minor compared to the vertiginous decline of the ANC in the largest two provinces – Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

There is no suggestion that the ANC will jostle for Cape power, and polling shows that its official opposition status could be challenged by either of the national (black and coloured, respectively) populists Julius Malema’s EFF or Gayton McKenzie’s Patriotic Alliance.

very South African election before this one had an outcome where the winner was never in doubt, and the only national interest was in the margin of the ANC victory and the performance of various opposition parties relative to each other. This time it’s different.

A running commentary which has accompanied our uneven 30-year democratic journey has been the perennial question of “when will the ANC split?” with the chatter suggesting the party would divide between its socialist working-class wing on the one side and democratic capitalists and constitutionalists on the other.

Well, the split has already happened, though not on the conventional lines predicted. In the May poll, there will be at least three versions of the ANC on offer to the voters: Cyril Ramaphosa’s ANC (perhaps dubbed “ANC classic”); Julius Malema’s EFF (which broke with the ANC in 2013 and could be dubbed “ANC racial populist”) and now Jacob Zuma’s MK party (take your pick on dubbing it: tribal Zulu nationalist ANC? Radical Economic Transformation ANC? Rogues Gallery ANC?)

Assertions on the origins of the MK party

Of course, there are no straight lines in politics, and a lot of crookeries are embedded in all the versions of the ANC on the ballot. Classic ANC offers forth a slew of Zondo state capture accused, and its current campaign in KZN is spearheaded by criminal accused Zandile Gumede, who doubles as both chief defendant in the dock on a R430-million waste tender scandal procured during her tenure as mayor of Durban and as ANC member of the KZN legislature.

Renewal and the fight against corruption heralded by Ramaphosa notwithstanding. Malema and the EFF have the VBS riches and other dubious and undeclared spoils of office and patronage (not least waste collection, which remains uncollected in the Ekurheleni municipality). And for Zuma’s MK, where should we begin? Perhaps the Guptas, but then there are the Russians as well.

A recent paper out of Washington DC by Andre Pienaar, who heads a cybersecurity firm and is described in the endnote as the “architect of the Scorpions” and was accused by Zuma of being a “foreign intelligence agent”, offered some interesting assertions on the origins of Zuma’s MK party.

Pienaar’s article headlined “Jacob Zuma, the MK Party and the Kremlin’s GRU”, was published on 22 February by National Security News, which modestly describes itself as “authentic, authoritative and trusted”.

Pienaar asserts that the Russians, via Vladimir Putin and Major General Andrei Veryanov, head of the clandestine service for the GRU (Russian intelligence service), brokered the deal in August 2023, which allowed Zuma to be paroled from prison here, and that the GRU is behind the formation of Zuma’s MK party.

Pienaar suggests: “The fusion of GRU’s Africa networks with local organised crime syndicates through Zuma and the MK party poses a new and gravely dangerous threat to South Africans and South Africa as a constitutional democracy.”

I suppose it takes a spook to out a spook and this analysis might be compelling or wide of the mark. Though if it is close to the truth, one must ask what paltry reward classic ANC (Ramaphosa) has received from Putin if, in exchange for Pretoria’s semi-slavish support for Russian foreign policy and wars, it’s landed with a Kremlin-inspired MK party, which according to polls is eating the ANC’s lunch in KZN and denting it nationally.

This takes ingratitude to new levels. But then again, ANC funding – or that part of it which is disclosed – comes in large measure from Putin crony Viktor Vekselberg, and according to Pienaar, Moscow funding is also helping Zuma’s MK. Perhaps the Kremlin is hedging its bets.

Unless, of course, the idea is to leverage Zuma as the real new power broker in both KZN and even nationally and to extract even further concessions from a rapidly weakening ANC and its irresolute president.

There are still three months to polling day and to reprise Karl Rove, we face at this election, and crucially afterwards, a contingency, an uncertainty and an imponderable all rolled into one. Maybe orchestrated in Moscow, to boot.