A year of Cope

2009-11-03 00:00

THE Congress of the People (Cope) is back in the spotlight. The party is a year old, but the focus on Cope also has to do with it finishing six months in opposition benches in all provinces and in the national Parliament.

Cope’s first anniversary is no ordinary­ moment in South Africa’s history. It is an opportunity for South African society to reflect on the events of a year in which the formation of Cope caused significant tremors in our body politic. The developments galvanised young people, mobilised the middle class and especially the black diamonds, rekindled the multiracial character of our progressive politics and reawakened public interest in the Constitution and institutions­ of democracy. Even the number of eligible citizens who voted in the general elections of April 22 increased significantly.

Now is the time to reflect on the future of Cope as it prepares for the 2011 local elections. It is time to recognise the blunders made, the difficulties confronted and successes registered. Only an honest reflection will help the young party position itself favour­ably in our national life and politics­.

The party promised a serious realignment of national politics, committing to return democratic South Africa to the ideals of its founders. In this regard, Cope positioned itself as the defender of the much-acclaimed Constitution and rule of law from what it saw as onslaughts from the new African National Congress leadership and its allies. Secondly, the party projected itself as part of an age-old progressive tradition that climaxed with the Congress of the People in 1955, a gathering of ordinary South Africans that enunciated principles and values that underpin the new Constitution. The principles of separation of powers, independence of institutions of oversight, the integrity of institutions of governance, transparency and accountability also became important definers of Cope’s agenda.

An element of Cope’s agenda was to appropriate and preserve the legacy of the past 15 years, especially that of Thabo Mbeki. This arose from disgruntlement about his recall by the ANC National Executive Committee in September 2008. This divided the party between former ANC and non-ANC members.

It is now trite to say that Cope promised such profound changes in our body politic and that by so doing, it enhanced its chances of failure in the real world of time, politics and economics. It overestimated its capacity to transform into an efficient machine to lead this realignment of power in a short space of time and in a society where political power lay in the hands of those it detested. It assumed­ that wise and widely held ideals would automatically translate into sustained public support, business backing and accumulated­ soft power.

It underestimated the effects of economics of poverty and wealth on choices that people make during difficult times. The poor were generally neglected in a calculated focus on the growing middle class. The rich and powerful decided to watch from a distance to see if it would be wise to sacrifice their image, brands, contracts with the government, and histories, for a cause. Early signs of internal contradiction, disunity and weak leadership undermined potential support for the party.

Cope also assumed that the modicum of national leaders it attracted would be equal to the task of luring more of their kind, building future leaders and building structures and a political culture. They had a noble cause, supported by the media and opinion makers, but they assumed that this would translate to political support. Of course, it did not.

So, it turned out that the much-acclaimed Sandton Convention that suggested the beginning of a multiparty political platform was the climax in the rise and decline of Cope. It was the last time the party showed unity and the ability to draw different South Africans together to talk about issues of mutual concern.

At its consultative conference in Bloemfontein, Cope decided to appoint its leadership by consensus rather than elect them openly. As a result, the disgruntled former ANC leaders dominated, and with them came the politics of division, back stabbing and opportunism. To everyone’s surprise, the party chose the affable Bishop Mvume Dandala to run against a skilled politician in Jacob Zuma for the presidency. Dandala and the Cope president, Mosiuoa Lekota, made different and sometimes contradictory statements about the party’s policy positions. Divisions deepened around their confusing positions. The haemorrhage began with members pulling back and leaders resigning slowly.

Yet, the party did relatively well during the April elections. It became the official opposition in a number of provinces and the third largest party in the national Parliament. But once in Parliament, the party failed to impress, unable to maintain a strong voice in national and provincial politics. It could not do so without carefully considered and discussed policy positions. It got co-opted into Democratic Alliance policy positions in the name of a united voice and this undermined its long-term identity as an alternative platform in South African politics.

Even as we hear that Lekota has lambasted Cope MPs for failing the party, his colleagues think he himself has failed to build party structures. The much-awaited elective conference will most likely take place around September 2010, according to Cope deputy president Mbhazima Shilowa, two years after the launch. So, the party will not have clear policy programmes, properly elected leaders and prospects of effective party structures for another year. But the party cannot wait another year and still hope to be a force in 2014.

• Siphamandla Zondi works for the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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