OPINION | Marius Roodt: Some cautionary tales for coalition governments in the fall of Cope

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A press briefing by embattled Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota was brought to an abrupt halt after party members came to blows.
A press briefing by embattled Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota was brought to an abrupt halt after party members came to blows.

Institute of Race Relations researcher, Marius Roodt, looks at the reasons for Cope's implosion and what lessons there are for parties in coalitions that hope to topple the ANC.

The recent news that Mosiuoa Lekota, leader of the Congress of the People (Cope), was removed as head of the party is just the latest in the sorry tale of what was once regarded one of South Africa's greatest political hopes. 

The fact that a media conference Lekota had called to dispute his removal descended into something resembling a drunken melee further emphasised how farcical the party had become.

But it was not always this way. 

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Cope was formed in 2008 after then President Thabo Mbeki lost his bid for re-election as ANC boss to Jacob Zuma and the loose alliance of labour, leftists, and Zulu nationalists, which had backed him. Soon after it became clear that Zuma would triumph there were rumblings of the formation of an ANC breakaway. 

Several ANC heavyweights were involved in the formation of Cope, including Lekota and former Gauteng Premier and Cosatu head, Mbhazima Shilowa, former presidential spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama, and businessman Saki Macozoma. Allan Boesak, a prominent member of the ANC in the early 1990s but was disgraced following evidence that he had committed fraud, saw himself partly rehabilitated when he was linked to Cope (he was later the party’s candidate for premier of the Western Cape in the 2009 election). Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who had replaced Zuma as Deputy President after Mbeki fired him, also joined Cope in 2009.

READ | Rapule Tabane: The death of Cope televised live

There were also rumours at the time that Thabo Mbeki himself had a hand in the party’s formation, as (supposedly) had former finance minister Trevor Manuel. Talk of Manuel's involvement in Cope’s establishment recently resurfaced again but he has strenuously denied his involvement.

Cope did well in its first election, winning nearly 8% of the vote (more than the EFF did in its debut election in 2014). It was also the second-biggest party in five provinces and won more than 10% of the vote in the Eastern Cape, Free State, and Northern Cape.

A niche in SA's helter-skelter world of politics

Its support seemed to be relatively racially diverse, and its message of constitutionalism, non-racialism, anti-corruption, and social democracy looked to have found a niche in the helter-skelter world of South African politics.

It seemed to have the momentum to challenge the DA as the official opposition and, in time, the ANC itself. At the time, The Economist said Cope could 'have the potential to break the ANC's stranglehold on power', with some believing that up to 40% of ANC voters could switch to Cope.

READ | Mbhazima Shilowa: Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right: Cope circus puts on (horror) show

In January 2009, William Gumede, a respected analyst, wrote on Cope in the British New Statesman with the headline: 'The people’s hope for a new democracy'. (To be fair to Gumede his analysis was not as breathless as the headline and cautioned that Cope would face significant challenges in the years ahead). 

The warnings of those who had said that Cope would not have things all its own way soon came to pass. The two most prominent leaders of the party, Shilowa and Lekota, rapidly fell out with each other, with court battles over money and control of the party. This was an unedifying spectacle. This was soon reflected in the party's election outcomes. In 2019, it won only 0.3% of the vote, enough for two MPs, and no seats in any provincial legislature, a far cry from 2009 when it had 30 MPs and representation in each provincial legislature.

Cope's downfall

There are two primary reasons for Cope’s implosion. The first is that strong structures were not developed, leading to internal battles, decay of its support, and a failure to mount the challenge to the ANC that many thought it was capable of.

The second – and this is where the lesson for potential South African coalitions comes in – is that despite its ostensible dedication to a certain set of principles, there was no real ideological thread holding the party together.

The primary reason Cope was formed was to oppose Jacob Zuma, and this alliance was made up of people with differing interests. It ranged from those, such as Lekota who had been United Democratic Front stalwarts and served as ANC cabinet ministers, to hard leftists, like Philip Dexter, a former member of the South African Communist Party. Deidre Carter, a KwaZulu-Natal businesswoman, who was a political novice, was also a prominent member of the party and found herself serving as an MP alongside people who had started their careers as unionists, such as Mbhazima Shilowa and Willy Madisha.

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Some will argue that the alliance which brought Zuma to power was as disparate as the one that opposed him and went on to become Cope, and in this, they would be correct. However, what kept the pro-Zuma alliance together (and this also applies to the ANC, more broadly speaking) is that it had access to patronage and power - valuable tools in keeping disparate interests together. Cope did not have access to these resources.

Any broad anti-ANC coalition which comes to power will need to have more than just a desire to depose the party which has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid. There will need to be some sort of broad ideological coherence. If the only shared goal is removing the ANC from power, then expect any putative coalition to fail.

A cautionary tale also comes from Israel, which will be holding its fifth election since 2019 in November. A broad coalition which came to power last year has struggled to remain stable and has finally collapsed, meaning that a new election must be held. The aim of this coalition – whose partners ranged from liberals to social democrats to left-wing Arabs and right-wing Zionists – was to remove long-serving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It succeeded in doing this but found there was little to keep the coalition intact once this goal had been achieved.  

Political parties in this country may find that the goal of removing the ANC is the easy part. The tricky part will come when South Africa actually has to be governed. And it may find that this is easier when your partners are like-minded.

Marius Roodt is a writer and senior analyst at the Institute of Race Relations.

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