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.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

The split within the ANC appears to be less about ideology and more about loyalty to certain personalities. Those who have sided with COPE are those who supported Mr. Mbeki in his unsuccessful bid to remain president of the ANC party structure at an ANC party conference in the city of Polokwane last December. Many of these Mbeki supporters have found themselves replaced by loyalists to Jacob Zuma, who was selected as Mbeki's successor and who is likely to lead the party in national elections expected in March.

The policy differences between these two factions are slight. Both sides believe in a European-style social democratic setup, with a strong free market, but equally strong government interventions to benefit the poor and working people. Mr. Zuma's supporters are thought to be closer to traditional trade union supporters, while the leaders of COPE – led by former Defense Minister Mosioua "Terror" Lekota and Gauteng provincial governor Mbhazima Shilowa – are seen to be closer to the business community.

Like rival siblings, the sparring between the former ANC comrades and the new guard has been fierce. ANC youth league leader Julius Malema recently boasted that he was willing to "kill" for ANC president Jacob Zuma. Congress of South African Trades Unions leader Zwelinzima Vavi vowed this weekend, "Come 2009, we will wipe them all off the earth, politically."

Cooler heads have suggested that the COPE leaders are mainly activists who were once at the center of power who have now been sidelined. Judging by the cast of COPE leaders, this charge has some merit, but it doesn't explain the nearly 450,000 dues-paying members who have joined COPE in the past few weeks. The ANC, by comparison, has just over 600,000 dues-paying members.

"I don't buy this notion that they are only a bunch of opportunists," says Friedman. "That may be so, but the voter doesn't decide to support someone because they are high-minded peopl who have developed different policies. If you have key people competing for the ANC's traditional voters, and people trust them, that will have a political effect, and people will take them seriously."

Given their leading role over the past decade in the Mbeki government – a time when many of South Africa's poor felt left behind in the country's economic boom years – some analysts believe that COPE's leaders will have a difficult time convincing voters that they deserve a second chance under a new party name.

"The long-term survival of COPE as a political entity is predicated on two things, their ability to attract charismatic leaders with a track record, and their ability to attract large numbers of ANC voters," says Ayesha Kajee, a senior researcher at the South African Institute for International Affairs in Johannesburg. "That is going to be tough, because the ANC is the party of liberation, and most people who support the ANC can't imagine voting for anyone else."

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