Dying in denial

2009-07-21 00:00

THE Congress of the People has made headlines for all the wrong reasons. These headlines make the point that the party, which was launched with much hype in the run-up to April 22 elections, is already a flop. It is amazing to observe how the party has evolved from being the hope of South Africa’s democracy, with the prospects of being a viable alternative to the ANC that had grown arrogant and self-destructive, to a movement in disarray.

Citizens who watched the rise of Cope with much interest and excitement now wonder if this was just a dream. They remember how the ANC failed to block Cope’s emergence and how intimidation on the ground in some areas just could not stop the tsunami. We remember that a war room at Luthuli House was simply unable to contain what seemed like a multiclass and multiracial movement. This was the case until the ANC shifted its focus from stopping and frustrating Cope to selling and rebuilding its own power base. Gwede Mantashe admits in the latest edition of The Thinker that the ANC panicked. Like the rest of us, the ANC overestimated the threat that was Cope until the big East London rally, attended by Nelson Mandela.

But we analysts, as well as newspaper editors and columnists, are yet to publicly admit that we also got it wrong and that we overestimated the promise that Cope was. The likes of Mondli Makhanya, Justice Malala and 702’s news editors, who did so much to inflate the public image of Cope, hailing it as the birth of post-liberation politics, only ate their humble pie in private, if at all. Of course, now they have become vocal critics of the now-haemorrhaging Cope, lamenting the new party’s litany of poor decisions and wrong choices. Yet, they have not admitted to their role in spurring the party on down the path of middle-class protest politics that led to internal contradictions.

They are like the magician in the folk tale: Tselane and the Zimu. In this folk tale, Zimu, the ogre, is the villain who caused havoc in a tranquil village by devouring young, beautiful girls. But he could not get one young maiden, Tselane, because her wise mother sang a song to her in a soft voice by which Tselane, who locked herself in the house, could identify her. Zimu enlisted the help of a magician who helped Zimu make his voice smoother, thus duping Tselane into opening the door for him. With Tselane captured in a bag, Zimu headed off to a shebeen for a drink and a meal. Shebeen patrons deliberately gave the ogre excessive amounts of liquor to drink, making him drunk. They managed to free Tselane from the sack of shame and put a swarm of bees and venomous snakes in the pot with the meal. The unsuspecting and drunk Zimu got bitten by snakes and stung by angry bees. He died a painful death. The magician who had helped to capture Tselane also helped the shebeen patrons plot Zimu’s death. So the story goes.

It is hard to find those editors, columnists and political analysts who gave Cope a chance. They have all become wise critics who can find nothing positive in the party. Those of us who called for moderation were dismissed by the same group as surrogates of the ANC or antidemocratic. When we cautioned that the party needed to turn anger generated by the recall of Mbeki into positive energy, we were reviled as fools. When we decried the decision to swindle Mosiuoa Lekota out of his position so early in the life of the party for a completly unknown face, we were fed stories of the importance of Mvume Dandala’s small role in the struggle.

This was the time when any analysis that suggested that the rise of Cope would benefit rather than undermine the ANC was treated with disdain, especially by newspaper editors who had become intolerant of any opinions that departed from the template all had come to accept as the truth. So when some of we analysts opined that Cope may actually negatively affect smaller parties that hold the balance of power in some parts of the country, such as the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, we were laughed off as pessimists.

To avoid these eventualities, Cope needed to listen as much to the critics as to the praise singers. The media needed to allow the young party to hear a variety of considered opinions to avoid hoodwinking the young movement into taking a cul-de-sac. Thus, Cope could have allowed Lekota to lead with the support of others. They could have allowed the grass-roots momentum for change to form the basis of the party and avoid turning it into a vehicle for the middle class.

But my biggest worry is that notwithstanding the leaks of internal reports, Cope has chosen to die in denial rather than frankly dealing with its problems. If this continues, Cope will appear to have just been a bad dream.

• Dr Siphamandla Zondi is director: Southern Africa at the Institute for Global dialogue.

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