Why there’s not much hope for Cope

This op-ed was written on the eve of South Africa’s elections in April.

When Mosiuoa ‘Terror’ Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa announced they were “serving divorce papers” on the African National Congress (ANC), their political home, there was a frenzy of speculation that this would result in a tectonic shift in South Africa’s political and electoral landscape. As the marriage broke down irretrievably with the SA National Convention, an anti-Zuma fest in Sandton, and the subsequent official launch of an opposition breakaway party in Bloemfontein just over a month later, pundits were hailing these developments as marking the end of ANC’s political hegemony.

Dreams of a breakaway party’s ability to chastise ANC arrogance and curb the party’s overwhelming electoral might weren’t the only things discussed amongst the chattering classes. Many were seduced by Lekota’s pro-constitutional rhetoric, calls for a constituency-based parliamentary system and for the president to be directly elected. They saw this as promising greater engagement and accountability between political parties and the people – an antidote to the Mbeki era’s alienation of the electorate and the erosion of parliament’s prestige and “people power”.

Now, as the April 22 election date looms dizzyingly closer, the body politic is in a very different mood. A Markinor poll estimates that the Congress of the People (Cope) will receive between eight and 12 percent of the vote, with this buttressed by the DA’s tracking poll results which show support for the breakaway hovering between six and eight percent. Both percentages are paltry compared to the optimistic figures bandied about in the early days of Cope’s creation. It appears that come April, Cope will little more than dent the ANC’s electoral dominance – far from cutting the ruling party down to size as so many initially expected.

There are a number of reasons for this. The initial media frenzy and fuzzy euphoria that surrounded Cope’s pro-constitutional democracy pronouncements soon faded as more and more personalities closely associated with Mbeki’s ruling cabal defected to the party.

Nosimo Balindlela, the erstwhile premier of the Eastern Cape, was welcomed by the breakaway with open arms, despite having led a provincial administration plagued by corruption, ineptitude and service delivery failures.

Smuts Ngonyama, another influential member in the new party, hardly represents democratic values – having been Machiavellian Mbeki’s spin-doctor-in-chief and head of the presidency. With Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka, the former deputy president, jumping aboard too, Cope seemed to increasingly resemble a collective of has-beens sidelined after backing the wrong horse at the ANC’s landmark Polokwane conference in December 2007.

The party’s leadership also suffered a credibility crisis. While Terror Lekota has been lauded for being “his own man” and something of a firebrand, many sceptics pointed to the administrative collapse of the defence department while he was its political head. People were also left wondering where Lekota’s apparent commitment to the Constitution was while he was a member of Mbeki’s cabinet. After all, he seemed quite happy to toe the party line when it came to Aids, the Arms Deal, Zimbabwe and other issues.

Cope has struggled to define its identity. While it has claimed to be a fresh and new alternative to the ANC it has been unable to differentiate itself from the ruling party, thanks to the plethora of Mbeki-ites in its ranks and a “cut and paste” election manifesto startlingly similar to the ANC’s. Volunteer-in-chief Mbhazima Shilowa didn’t help matters by claiming Cope “reveres” Mbeki: an autocrat whose tenure was marked by the suppression of debate, demonisation of critics, racialisation, lacklustre service delivery and rampant corruption.

Cope’s failure to make a clean break with Mbeki’s reign has continued with the appointment of Mvume Dandala as the party’s presidential candidate. While some hailed the appointment as a masterstroke – after all, the political neophyte was supposedly untainted by the scandals and intrigue of the Mbeki era – the strategy backfired. Not only is Dandala relatively obscure — most South Africans haven’t heard of him until now – but journalists soon discovered that Mbeki has described the former head of the Methodist church as his favourite cleric. Dandala incidentally officiated at his presidential inauguration in 2004. Unlike most other senior religious figures he refused to criticise even the president’s most horrifying policies – most notably Aids denialism and the implicit support of Mugabe’s oppressive regime. Dandala reinforced notions of loyalty to Mbeki and his Aids-denialist agenda when he was unable to categorically state to a journalist that HIV causes Aids. It’s perhaps unsurprising that some have even gone as far as to accuse him of being a Mbeki puppet, acting as a proxy for the disgraced former president to reign in the influence of Lekota and Shilowa within the new party.

A deterioration in the generally favourable attitudes towards Cope in the mainstream South African media can be attributed to the quietening down of pro-constitutional sentiment, with the splinter party instead dependent on high-profile defections to maintain news momentum. But even this tactic backfired when several people, including the ANC MP Dennis Bloem, were included in both the ANC and Cope electoral lists in early March. It appeared that these principled specimens were hedging their bets, worried they were to be purged by the post-Polokwane faction in power at Luthuli House. The electoral list fiasco also sparked reports of fierce battles for power and positions within Cope. With the party’s foot soldiers fighting it out for top spots on the electoral list, focus on the real battle – the election campaign – has been lost. Shilowa, Lekota and Dandala’s wobbly and uncertain leadership exacerbated the situation, creating the perception amongst potential voters that Cope is rudderless, running aground on the quicksands of self-interest and organisational anarchy.

Cope’s already fragile credibility has also suffered from its lack of discernment around new recruits which include corrupt former pastor Allan Boesak and other politically irrelevant opportunists like David Dalling and Peter Marais, both of whom have been members of several different parties. (In a farcical twist, the latter has subsequently defected to the ANC.) To make matters worse, Cope’s election strategist Mlungisi Hlongwane rejoined the ANC in late March. Compounding this strategic instability are rumours that despite the backing of BEE billionaire Saki Macozama, Cope has run out of money.

Analysts have said much about Cope’s potential impact on other opposition parties, with some even claiming that the breakaway would unseat the Democratic Alliance (DA) as the official opposition. Although Cope has been campaigning in opposition strongholds and its Western Cape premier candidate Allan Boesak has desperately rubbished the service delivery record of the DA-led coalition running the city of Cape Town, it is unlikely that either will have much effect. This is supported by Cape Town’s two recent by-elections: the DA won both by a landslide, with support for Cope barely registering as a blip on the electoral radar.

Cope’s dire financial situation, combined with its lack of strategy and chaotic organisational structure, is up against the DA’s relatively well-funded and slickly operated election machine and therefore will not be capturing much of the opposition vote.

On voting day Cope can count on the support of Mbeki loyalists as well as a sizeable portion of the nascent black middleclass, the beneficiaries of Mbeki’s Black Economic Empowerment and affirmative action programme. There aren’t, of course, that many of either – a direct consequence of the nature of both the man and the policies he imposed.

Like the authoritarian and aloof figure that haunts it, Cope has failed to connect with the rural voters and urban poor that make up the bulk of the ANC’s support base. In contrast, this is a demographic that ANC president Jacob Zuma, with his populist charisma and empathetic warmth, has energised and inspired. The disillusioned frustration stemming from the service delivery failures, unemployment and continuing poverty that characterised Mbeki’s rule has shifted to a hopeful optimism that the messianic Msholozi will deliver. In the face of this, splutterings about Zuma’s corruption charges are powerless and largely irrelevant. In trying to seriously challenge the Zuma-led ANC, Cope has put itself at an even greater disadvantage through its incoherent leadership, uninspired election manifesto and its chronic credibility crisis.

It is clear that Cope’s formation will not fundamentally realign South African politics as some have hoped. While that realignment is indeed inevitable, it is also an incremental process. We still have a long way to go.

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