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New rival to test South Africa's ANC

The Congress of the People party officially launches on Tuesday. Its leaders – dissidents from the African National Congress – could usher in a more vibrant multiparty era.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / December 16, 2008

New Party leaders: Supporters of former defense minister Mosioua Lekota held his photo (r.) and that of former Premier of Gauteng Province, Mbhazima Shilowa, during a rally of defectors of the African National Congress in Johannesburg, South Africa, last month.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

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Johannesburg, South Africa

Nearly a year after former President Thabo Mbeki lost control of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, his supporters launched their own rival political party this weekend, pledging to give South Africa a real multiparty democracy for the first time since the fall of apartheid 14 years ago.

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Fresh from their first electoral victories last week, in which 10 members of the new Congress of the People party (COPE) won seats in the Western Cape provincial assembly – compared with the more established Democratic Alliance's nine, and the ANC's four – COPE leaders told members at their convention this weekend in Bloemfontein that the new party would bring back democratic values of dissent and discussion that the ANC's new leaders have "abandoned or jettisoned overnight."

The speed with which this new COPE party has gained its place in South African politics speaks volumes about how unsatisfied many South Africans are with the ANC, which brought the poor black majority political freedom, but failed to deliver on its promises of creating jobs, housing, and better economic conditions to lift that majority out of poverty.

"I think the break within the ANC is the beginning of a process which will see South Africa develop into a competitive democracy," says Steven Friedman, a senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa, a think tank based in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called.

Although he doesn't think that COPE itself, with its current leaders and support base in the Cape region, is sufficiently powerful to knock the ANC from power in upcoming elections in 2009, Mr. Friedman says that the breakaway party will have stronger appeal for black voters who equate the ANC with the destruction of racist apartheid rule. "A breakaway from the ANC is the only way we are going to have competitive democracy."

South Africa's ANC has had a lock on national power that has proved very difficult to break at election time. But growing voter dissatisfaction – from poor black voters lacking jobs, clean drinking water, and sanitation to middle-class and richer voters worried about the rise in crime – has created a political opportunity for disgruntled members of the ANC to challenge their former comrades, and for disgruntled voters to have their voices heard.

"People have come to realize that there is a gap between the mythological ANC and the real ANC, and they are seeing it is just another party with political leaders who are plagued with the same problems as other parties" says Aubrey Matshiqi, a political analyst at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg.

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