Cope: new party has lots of members, but can they bring out voters?

2008-12-14 00:00

Even before the official launch of the new political party, Congress of the People (Cope), it has already signed up more than 400 000 members.

Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota said they were astounded by the response.

He said that when the ANC went to its Polokwane conference, it had a membership of just over 600 000.

He said history will prove the time is right in South Africa for a party that strives to deepen democratic values.

However, the question uppermost in many minds is whether these members will galvanise voters to vote for the party. This is because although the ANC’s paid up membership is 600 000, the party manages to pull millions of votes during the elections.

Among the 3 400 delegates on the first day of the launch of Cope at the University of Free State there was an upbeat mood. Clearly money has been no object and delegates have exclaimed on the slickness of the proceedings. An army of volunteers ensured a smooth registration process, hassle-free accommodation arrangements and meal vouchers for the entire three days of the congress. Groups of journalists were given their own relationship manager to consult if they had any queries.

The first day of the congress was low key, with not much singing or toyi-toyiing outside the venue. Inside the hall delegates from the different provinces rose in spontaneous songs.

One grouping sang in Zulu, “Cope does not have a shower”, a reference to ANC president Jacob Zuma’s court testimony that he had a shower after sex with an HIV-positive woman. Cope interim deputy chairman Mbhanzima Shilowa, warned delegates not to sing songs that insult politicians.

Lekota said they are emphasising to their members the need for discipline and this includes being punctual and being careful about the types of songs they sing.

“We want to cultivate a political culture around the organisation which will make everyone very proud. In terms of our behaviour relative to other parties, we want to provide the norms and standards that would encourage members of society to feel they should respect political leaders because they behave in an exemplary fashion,” he added.

In his political report at the start of the congress, Lekota raised concerns about intimidation of Cope members.

He likened the intimidation and “paralysing fear” to the situation that existed in the John Vorster and P.W. Botha eras.

“Public servants now talk in whispers when they discuss Cope. Men and women with whom we worked and shared jokes now have to look the other way when we chance upon each other, along corridors of state buildings. And they explain when we meet elsewhere that they risk their jobs if they are seen to befriend us.”

Lekota said there are tales of people spying on each other and rumour-mongering. Hate speech prevails, he added, and public meetings of Cope are regularly violently disrupted by people dressed in the ruling party’s paraphernalia.

He cited the rumour of a “war in the relationship” between himself and his deputy, Shilowa, saying, “We caught one of the smses and know where this is coming from and what they are up to”.

Both Lekota and Shilowa pointed to the mix of delegates at the conference, saying Cope has a chance of cultivating a party that practises true non-racialism.

Lekota said chapters of the party have sprung up in several overseas countries. In an echo of former president Thabo Mbeki, whose speeches often carried the words of Irish poet William Butler Yeats, Lekota said, “ … as Yeats once declared, ‘a terrible beauty is born’.”

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