Appealing to everybody

2008-12-17 00:00

The launch conference of the new Congress of the People (Cope) party at the Free State University in Bloemfontein saw yet more big names being added to its list of members, including Alan Boesak, Thoko Didiza and Sydney Mufamadi. The latter two were ministers in former president Thabo Mbeki’s cabinet and may bring with them other Mbeki adherents, while Boesak, although hardly a model of probity, is a charismatic figure with a large following in the Western Cape. It seems likely that more former notables from the African National Congress will follow and it will be interesting to see how much support each will bring to the breakaway party.

Aside from these signs of the growing popularity of Cope, its launch brings into sharp relief current trends in South African politics, and especially in the ANC. For example, it’s clear that despite vigorous disclaimers the ruling party is deeply troubled by Cope’s emergence. One of these is that the venue of yesterday’s Cope rally had suddenly to be changed from a stadium in Botshabelo, 60 kilometres from Bloemfontein, to the Free State cricket stadium in the city.

Although the reason given was that the Botshabelo stadium was being renovated, it’s more likely that the switch was engineered by the ANC, which has a record of hounding its rivals. If so, this was a provocative move, for it meant that the Cope rally and the ANC’s Reconciliation Day gathering would be held in the same city on the same day.

Unable to see beyond “struggle credentials”, the rainbow days of Nelson Mandela long gone, the ANC has become bloated, self-righteously arrogant and petty, and progressively more exclusive. Cope’s leadership, however, has regularly emphasised that the new party will be inclusive, a political home for all South Africans, and many citizens appear ready to heed the call.

The emergence of Cope may have been a rude shock for the ANC, but it should also alert other opposition parties. For while ANC members may join Cope in droves, disaffected supporters of small opposition parties, frustrated at having no real power to influence events, may turn to Cope in desperation at the next election. It is, surely, time for the other opposition parties to settle their differences and to consider the advantages of forming a coalition including themselves and Cope. That’s perhaps the only way to make a significant dent in the ANC monolith. It would certainly be the healthiest path for the South African democracy.

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