Political developments in the volatile Western Cape suggest the African National Congress is losing its grip on power to the Democratic Alliance and other parties, writes Waghied Misbach

The rift between African National Congress president Thabo Mbeki and his deputy Jacob Zuma may be grabbing headlines around the country, but in the Western Cape a quiet revolution appears to be under way, weakening the party's hold on power.

But of course, a week is a long time in politics.

There is also a floor-crossing period to come this year, and the politics of the Western Cape are so fluid it's hard to predict any definite outcome.

But there are a number of reasons for arguing the ANC is losing their hold on power, including: recent takeovers by opposition parties at municipal level; reported infighting in the party; and divisions in the ANC's alliance with Cosatu, led by the federation's provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich.

The left-leaning Ehrenreich is critical of the provincial leadership and is calling for ideological change in ruling party policies.

Last week the ANC lost the large Drakenstein municipality - formerly known as Paarl - to a coalition of the Independent Democrats, the Democratic Alliance and a number of smaller parties.

The ID and DA now control 21 of the 30 municipalities in the Western Cape.

Before the Drakenstein takeover, ANC secretary Mcebesi Skwatsha dismissed the reports of the party's impending loss as mere rumour.

He displayed a similar attitude after last March's local government polls when he was seen walking triumphantly into the Cape Town city council chambers alongside his colleague Nomaindia Mfeketo.

It is now well documented how Skwatsha and his colleagues were outmaneuvered and Mfeketo lost her job as mayor.

The party has been playing catch-up ever since.

Then there is the reported infighting, with Premier Ebrahim Rasool, also the former ANC regional leader.

He apparently came under attack from a grouping led by the influential and seasoned ANC provincial leader James Ngculu, an MP and chairman of parliament's watchdog committee.

Ngculu rejects any notion that the ANC is weakening in the province, telling Sowetan on Tuesday the analysis is "completely wrong".

He ascribes the change in power at municipal level to the realignment of political parties, and attributes much of the blame to the indecisiveness of the ID under its leader Patricia De Lille - a view which De Lille has consistently rejected.

This does not reflect a change in the voter sentiments, he argues.

Ngculu dismissed claims of factionalism and ethnic divisions between so-called coloureds and Africans in the party.

He criticised journalists for their "lack of appreciation of democratic processes" when reporting on party leadership contests.

As for calls for the party to lean towards socialism from Ehrenreich and others, Ngculu argues South Africa has more socialist-type policies in place than many other countries that label themselves socialist states, such as Venezuela and Bolivia.

Ngculu was circumspect when asked whether the ANC could topple Zille in the Cape Town municipality.

He acknowledged their attempts to unseat Zille over the past few months, but said the ANC was now adopting a wait-and-see approach after witnessing public fights between Zille and her coalition partners.

Jonathan Faull, an analyst at the Institute for a Democratic South Africa, agrees with Ngculu that the shifts at municipal level are a result of opposition realignment and do not necessarily reflect a change invoter patterns.

Faull says the ANC has been steadily growing its support in the province since 1994.

Faull has no doubt that the ANC was "creating problems for itself . which no one can deny", referring to the faction fights in the party over the last two years.

This resulted in "undermined morale" at branch level with certain branches setting up parallel structures which do not interact with the provincial leadership. Faull says a divided party results in poor focus on its purpose.

While noting that race and ethnicity remain "serious fault lines in the Western Cape", Faull believes the factionalism in the ANC is not a result of divisions between coloured and African camps in the leadership, but stems rather from differences over election strategy.

While the Ngculu 'camp' wants an intense concentration on African voters, the fastest growing group in the Western Cape, the reality is that the so-called coloured group still form more than 50 percent of the voting bloc, although there is a measure of voter apathy.

A "mixed strategy" to gain African, coloured and white votes would be needed to be effective at future polls, argues Faull.

Faull says the DA is now consolidating its power and is likely to draw support from the ID, particularly during the upcoming floor-crossing period.

Other opposition parties are also becoming increasingly "emboldened" by Zille's success in fighting off the ANC in the Cape Town municipality.

Faull believes Zille will become the DA's new leader and that this would strengthen her position on the political scene.

He sees no possibility of the ANC toppling Zille from power as the Cape Town mayor in the near future.