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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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Debunking the Daily Mail’s doomsayer

On Sunday 29 March, a devastating article by Peter Hitchens on Jacob Zuma and South Africa’s future was published in Britain’s Daily Mail. Couched in a sickening, sensationalist discourse swirling with racist and colonialist undertones, the story employed gross misrepresentation, selective truth-telling, distortion and stereotyping to depict South Africa as about to collapse into the abyss of anarchy and lawlessness.

Of course South Africa faces some very worrying challenges. There are indeed threats to the sustainability and strength of our democracy – not least the disbanding of the Scorpions and the dropping of Zuma’s charges. But with all the nuance of a sledgehammer, Hitchens’ article framed the largely untested Zuma as a savage despot, thereby reinforcing all the crude, racist assumptions about our country that doubtless many Daily Mail readers hold.

I have selected some of the more outrageous passages (italicised) and comment on them below.

On electricity cuts:

Electricity blackouts – the invariable sign of a country on the slide – are now frequent. The ill-run nuclear power station inherited from the apartheid regime’s atom bomb programme is beginning to judder and fail, raising fears of an African Chernobyl.

Loadshedding is so last year. Apparently not for Hitchens. I can’t remember the last time there was a powercut in Cape Town. And remember not so long ago when New York was plunged into darkness? No one was predicting the demise of the American empire then. Eskom may have screwed up big time with a lack of capacity but that doesn’t necessarily mean South Africa is on the verge of falling apart.

To my knowledge, Koeberg had nothing to do with the apartheid’s nuclear programme. And despite its shutdowns, it’s highly unlikely Koeberg is going to blow up any time soon.

On immigrants and informal settlements:

It is largely thanks to these new arrivals that wretched, instant slums sprout right up to the edge of Cape Town’s slick new airport.

Those “slums” have been there since the 1980s and haven’t just suddenly sprouted within the past few months. With the N2 Gateway housing project there are actually far fewer shacks near the airport than there has been in decades.

Even in the lovely Cape wine country, squatter camps have erupted on the outskirts of towns where chefs drizzle olive oil on to fancy salads….

Again, squatter camps and townships have been on the outskirts of Cape Winelands towns for decades and haven’t just suddenly materialised. The settlements are a result of apartheid’s vicious town planning in which blacks were forced to live away from towns in appalling conditions.

On Aids:

There is a little about AIDS, but nothing like as much as there should be, given the acres of graves that commemorate the government’s moronic policies, of denial and folk remedies (including beetroot).

Yes, government Aids policies have been moronic. But Hitchens makes no mention that Aids denialism has been abandoned or that Manto Tshabalala Msimang, one of its fiercest proponents, has been sidelined and replaced by a very capable health minister, Barbara Hogan, who – even though only being on the job for a few months now – is already improving the healthcare system and its response to the HIV/Aids pandemic.

On Zuma himself:

In the coming weeks, South Africa seems to me to be taking several definite steps towards its cold, shocking awakening – as a full member of the Third World.

The man who will lead it there is called Jacob Zuma. Remember the name. You are going to hear a lot more of it.

Zuma is wholly African.

Wholly African? Hitchens is implying that’s a bad thing.

He completely lacks the Westernised polish and smoothness of Mandela and Mbeki. His political party, the African National Congress, sometimes seems aghast that it has chosen him as leader. Too late.

Why is having “Westernised polish and smoothness” be a good thing? Hitchens is implying that such qualities are a virtue, far better and more civilised than being African which he clearly considers “savage” and “barbaric”. Mugabe and Idi Amin both were renowned for their “Westernised polish and smoothness” and look at where that got their respective countries. And it didn’t make Mbeki anymore democratic – far from it. His tenure as president would have made Machiavelli blush.

As for the ANC despairing of its president – well, that’s simply hilarious. The party loves him. They’ll do anything for him.  For heaven’s sake – that’s why he won at Polokwane.

[T]he future President has all the charisma of an ashtray. The scripted slogans fall from his lips like blobs of cold porridge.

Another joke. Zuma is known as a highly charismatic figure and electrifying, gifted speaker.

On South Africa’s impending elections:

Many fear it will rapidly become a lawless kleptocracy when he comes to power, which he will do after a hopelessly one-sided and rather crooked election.

South Africa’s 2004 elections are generally considered to have been the freest and fairest in its history. And while there will undoubtedly be the occasional incident of intimidation etc. it is unlikely that this will characterise the upcoming election. As for South Africa becoming a lawless kleptocracy? The rot set in when Mbeki was in charge. It’s up to civil society and the political opposition to ensure it doesn’t spread any further.

On the Zulus and Zululand:

South Africa’s largest tribe are a proud fighting people, and Zuma will not be a mild leader, as Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, his two forerunners, were.

Tribal stereotypes are not only shameless constructs but often ridiculously inaccurate. Hitchens implies that while all Zulus are war-like, the Xhosas are peace-loving and “mild”. Both are equally pathetic generalisations. As more and more of the Xhosa Mbeki’s machinations come to light, it’s hard to think of the man as having been a “mild leader”.

There are Zuma posters, but the ANC – mistrusted here as a mainly Xhosa party – has to come into these districts under heavy police escort. The posters are nailed on electricity poles about 15ft up, to stop Inkatha militants tearing them down.

It’s laughable to think of the ANC as mainly Xhosa or that the only reason why Zulus support Zuma is because he is also Zulu as Hitchens attests. ANC support in KwaZulu-Natal has grown massively since 1994, with the Inkatha Freedom Party shedding masses of votes at each successive election – long before Zuma was the ANC’s leader.

On a rally in Springbok:

What is he doing here, in this arid dorp halfway to Nigeria? The truth is that the ANC faces a rebellion, and is trying to quell it with a mixture of power and pay-outs.

Someone please show Hitchens an atlas! Springbok is nowhere near to being “halfway to Nigeria”. And if the ANC is really facing a rebellion why is it doing so well in the polls? Of course many amongst the poor are gatvol, but, viewing Zuma as a saviour, they tend to take their angst about service delivery failures out on immigrants and individual ANC municipal councillors instead.

A breakaway, called the Congress of the People (COPE), has just scored surprisingly well in council by-elections near Springbok. Zuma’s allies, furious that for the first time they face serious opponents, have let their rage show in ways which have rightly scared many peaceful South Africans.

So, Cope is doing well in Springbok. Ergo they are now “serious opponents” to the ANC. That’s hilarious, considering a Markinor poll estimates their support to be between 8 and 12%. They’re little more than a splinter.

On the DA:

[Helen Zille] knows the [Democratic] Alliance must break out of being nothing more than a white liberal party.

A white liberal party? Hitchens is sounding like Trevor Manuel on this one. According to research done by Lawrence Schlemmer, the political analyst and academic, the DA is South Africa’s most multiracial party. And there’s that massive landslide at a by-election in the coloured township of Mitchells Plain we could talk about…

Hitchens’ conclusion:

[T]he prognosis – a rigged and menacing election, a government founded on lawlessness and an uneducated, cunning new leader, an African ‘Big Man’ with his roots in tribe and tradition – is not so good.

An election is generally considered to be the will of the people. Because Hitchens considers Zuma a barbaric savage, he describes such a concept as “menacing”. (Quite frankly the elections that propelled the warmongering civil-liberty assaulting Tony Blair to power were far more menacing.) There is no evidence that supports the notion that the election will be rigged but maybe Hitchens assumes that as its happening on the African continent, it must be rigged.

As for Zuma’s lack of education, why should that be a concern when so many of Africa’s “big men” were some of the best educated on the continent (such as Mugabe)? Hitchens implies that African cultures are inherently dangerous and uncivilised. Provided that Zuma respects and adheres to the constitution, bill of rights and our democracy, there is nothing wrong for him to be rooted in “tribe and tradition”.

It is unfortunate that worst kind of neo-colonialist Afropessimism has been employed to sell a few more papers. If they are incapable of a rational, truly insightful and nuanced portrayal of South Africa and its challenges, perhaps the Daily Mail should rather just do another story on Jade Goody instead. Or talk about how terrible Tony wriggled out of the cash-for-peerages scandal and canned an investigation into British Aerospace’s bribing of Saudi Arabian decisionmakers to guarantee they bought Eurofighter jets.

It cuts both ways.

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Zim unity government: Thabo’s toxic legacy

Part of Thabo Mbeki’s toxic legacy could well prove to be the disastrous unity deal he engineered between Zanu-PF and the MDC in Zimbabwe.

Democracy has been defeated in Zimbabwe, and this largely due to Mbeki’s willingness to legitimise Mugabe’s tyrannous regime through his chairing of the power-sharing negotiations. It was a marriage doomed from the start — and it’s not surprising that about four weeks after the deal was signed, there is still a deadlock over Cabinet positions.

On the weekend, Mugabe announced that Zanu-PF will control the state security apparatus as well as the most important ministries: defence, justice, media mines, land and home and foreign affairs.

It is clearer than ever that Zanu-PF has no intention of relinquishing power, and only acceded to the unity deal as a survival strategy. Mbeki was either too callous or delusional to realise this. However, that is beside the point; more importantly, Zimbabwe’s people are needlessly suffering thanks to our erstwhile president’s self-interested meddling.

The results of the March 29 elections have not been respected. Had they been, and had the MDC been allowed to form a government, aid and investment would be flowing into the country and reconstructing the decimated nation would begin.

Zimbabwe remains without a functioning government, its economy in freefall with inflation skyrocketing to an incomprehensible 231-million percent. Inter-account transfers have been banned by the Reserve Bank and queues for ATMs are hundreds of metres long. People are desperate, starving and unable to afford even the most basic goods needed to survive.

There are severe shortages of seed and fertiliser, so the country will be unable to feed itself. All in all, the outlook is spectacularly bleak.

President Kgalema Motlanthe has a responsibility to resolve the situation exacerbated by the machinations of his predecessor. The unity deal should be canned. He should step in to ensure that Zanu-PF surrenders its illegitimate power. He can do this by freezing bank accounts, implementing smart sanctions and slapping travel bans on the Zanu-PF elite.

On March 29, the Zimbabwean people voted for change. It is about time their decision, and democratic right, was respected.

This was first published on Alex’s Thought Leader column.

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New party about power not policy

Karima Brown, the Business Day‘s political  editor, writes a devastating analysis of Mosiuoa Lekota’s moves to break away from the ANC. On the motivations of the formation of the new party she writes that:

It points to a group of powerful individuals who accessed state resources so that they could rule in perpetuity. The move to form a new party has its genesis not in concerns about the rule of law or that the ANC has lost its way in terms of the vision in the Freedom Charter. It is the plan B of those who campaigned for former president Thabo Mbeki’s third-term bid as ANC president as a way to cling on to control. Shortly after their massive defeat at Polokwane, plans were being hatched to see how best to remain in control.

Read the column in full here.

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Ta ta Thabo, hello Kgalema

Our new caretaker president has been announced and, contrary to what the rumour mill was saying, it will be Kgalema Motlanthe and not Baleka Mbete. Which is just as well, since he kind of looks more like a caretaker than she does.

Jokes aside, there’s no doubt a sigh of collective relief about the choice — Mbete has been a spectacularly pathetic and scandal-prone speaker better known for her endless supply of expensive haute couture than for ensuring impartiality in our democracy’s engine-room rubberstamp.

Motlanthe, on the other hand, is an intelligent, cunning diplomatic operator who will surely restore some stability at the helm of the troubled ship of state.

Read all about it in this BBC article here.

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Firing Mbeki ensures imminence of ANC split

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Zuma’s coterie, drunk on power, might think they’ve got the upper hand in their battle against Mbeki. But by ignominiously firing a man well known for his pride, they are simply hastening the demise of the ANC as we know it. They have provided the impetus required for the inevitable wrenching of the ANC into two distinct parties.

Everyone knew the ANC would split but most thought it was still in the distant future — like in 2014. Having recalled Mbeki, however, means he has nothing much to lose by starting up a rival movement. And he has, lest the Zuma camp forgets, an influential group of backers, supporters and funders. He even has pockets of popularity (especially amongst the middle classes), admittedly not something which appears obvious our news is saturated with mshini-toting pro-Zuma fanatics.

The Zuma camp have made a strategic blunder — by shoving Mbeki out into the cold, they are creating a significant challenge to their accession to power. Which is a good thing, of course.

Our democracy (if one can call it that) may just stand a chance.

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How the ANC will push out the President

The latest M&G’s lead story outlines how the ANC plans to get rid of Mbeki. Apparently they do not want go through the conventional route of a parliamentary impeachment or vote of no confidence for fears they will be obligated to call an early election which the party feels too unprepared for.

Instead, it has been decided to encourage Mbeki to resign and spare himself the humiliation of being “pushed”. It remains to be seen whether this will work. What is also quite exciting are the rumours abounding that Mbeki is considering creating a new party to rival the ANC. Being forced out by the ANC may well be the last straw for Mbeki, according to Karima Brown, the Business Day‘s sterling political editor who also adds:

Polls have been conducted, research commissioned, meetings held and stories spread. According to one, an election now with such a party in the field would result in a hung Parliament. That may be optimistic but it is evidence of something being hatched. So far, backers have been cautious about when or how to launch, but Malema may be pushing the boat out to sea. Much will depend on how the crisis between Mbeki and the ANC is handled over the next few days. Running an election campaign is expensive but Mbeki’s backers do not lack funds.

The birth of a rival movement will have a radical — and welcome — impact on our political landscape; while messy, it will increase our democracy’s chance of surviving because it will shatter the ANC’s hegemony.

Read the M&G’s cover story here. Click here to read the Business Day article.

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