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South Africa: COPE’s political fate predetermined from its inception

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander/African News Agency (ANA) – COPE was built on a shaky foundation. It was formed by people who had no clearly defined political agenda characterised by policy deviation from the ANC, the writer says.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

When the Congress of the People (COPE) was established in 2008, it started like a house on fire. Its formation was characterised by euphoria. Those who shared this ecstasy were vindicated when the party obtained 30 seats in the National Assembly in the 2009 elections. Some predicted that COPE was going to unseat the ANC. This view was predicated on the understanding that the majority of those who joined COPE were former ANC members.

This was a plausible prediction. However, I took a different stance, arguing that COPE would die a natural death. Surely, it would be an exaggeration to state that COPE was a stillborn child. But, it is equally true that this party was never going to last for various reasons.

First, COPE was built on a shaky foundation. It was formed by people who had no clearly defined political agenda characterised by policy deviation from the ANC.

Unlike the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) which was formed based on a clear policy issue whereby the ANC argued that the political struggle was for everyone who was opposed to apartheid while the PAC believed that the struggle was strictly for black people, COPE was built on anger. It was formed by people who were disgruntled by

the manner in which former President Thabo Mbeki was forced to resign as President of South Africa. Once this anger subsided, it was a foregone conclusion that COPE would collapse.

Secondly, some of those who joined COPE did not do so because they believed it was an alternative to the ANC. Instead, they hoped that they would get positions in parliament – something that had become difficult to do in the ANC given its big size.

Once the party list was concluded and people realised that they did not make it to the top 50, it was expected that they would either go back to the ANC or join other political parties. Alternatively, they would form their own political parties or quit politics.

Thirdly, while most political parties experienced internal squabbles long after their establishment, this was not the case with COPE. Soon after its establishment, two party leaders, Mbhazima Shilowa and Mosiuoa Lekota started to have a tussle. This was occasioned, in part, by their divergent views on how to nurture the party’s relations with the Socialist Party of Germany. Inevitable, both money and power set the two leaders apart.

Given these factors, it did not come as a surprise that COPE suddenly moved from 30 seats in the National Assembly in 2009 to a mere 3 seats in the next election in 2014 with only 0.75% votes. In the recent 2019 election, this number went down to 2 seats – representing 0.27% votes. Based on this trajectory and the fact that the party

has failed to grow its membership, the writing is already on the wall that COPE is heading towards the exit door. Unfortunately, the party is digging its own grave.

Meanwhile, another political party which broke away from the ANC after COPE, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) obtained 25 seats in the 2014 general election in which it was participating in for the first time following its establishment in 2013. During the recent 2019 general election, the EFF increased its number of seats to 44 –

representing 10.79% of the votes.

Instead of doing self-introspection and correcting itself, COPE has actually done the direct opposite. As other political parties prepare themselves for the 2024 general election, COPE has decided to do things differently – to its own peril!

The news about the sudden suspension of Lekota as the President of the party sent shockwaves throughout the country for various reasons.

The timing of the party is questionable. This time should have been used to resuscitate the branches and to attract new members – something that has proved difficult lately. COPE could also have used this time to attract more youth to its fold in order to guarantee its continued existence. Instead, it opted to commit political

suicide. There is no guarantee that the party will recover in time from these squabbles before the upcoming 2024 general election.

While trying to understand the constitutionality of Lekota’s suspension, there was another bombshell when the news about counter-suspension instituted by Lekota against his deputy, Willie Madisha and the party spokesperson, Dennis Bloem. Such developments made a mockery of COPE as a political party.

In both instances, the question which arises is the following: Was the party’s constitution followed in making these decisions? If the answer is in the affirmative, then there is nothing to worry about. However, if the answer is in the negative, which Lekota has already confirmed, then COPE is in a predicament.

Lekota argues that his suspension was unconstitutional since the apex structure of the party did not meet to decide his fate. In fact, not all the accusations levelled against him can be sustained. The party may be correct in accusing him of sowing divisions in the party and interfering in the appointment of councillors. However, it would be foolhardy to accuse him of having failed to grow the party. No one will succeed in doing that.

As mentioned earlier, the purpose for which COPE was formed is long gone. Therefore, the reason for its continued existence is not clear.

Interestingly, Bloem and Madisha also cried foul about their suspension – arguing that as far as they know, they have not been suspended. This leads to the conclusion that there is a stalemate between the two parties (Lekota on the one

hand and Madisha and Bloem on the other). Given that all three are senior leaders in COPE, the only solution to this impasse is to invoke relevant sections of the party’s constitution. If they all use emotions, there will be no end to these squabbles.

The saturation point of the feud within COPE was the interruption of a media briefing that was organised by Lekota who was accompanied by some of the party members.

It could not be immediately established as to who the three men who stormed into the venue and disrupted the media briefing were representing.

In other words, did they take such a decision on their own or were they sent by someone else to do so? Secondly, were they propelled by their desire to protect the constitution of the party or were they actually motivated by their own self-aggrandisement so that they could be elevated into leadership positions once the current dust settles down? These questions are not easy to answer given the evident confusion in the party and failure to uphold the party’s constitution.

The latest developments in COPE draw our attention to even more critical issues in South African politics. The first observation is the state of smaller parties in South Africa. Divisions in the PAC have weakened that party and reduced any chances of its potential growth. Leadership squabbles in the NFP have weakened that party too

and robbed it of its potential growth after it had started so well. Leadership squabbles have also dented the political image of many politicians in the recent past. This was the case with Dr. Ziba Jiyane, Dr Mamphele Ramphele, Dr.

Makhosi Khoza and many others.

Another observation is that some political leaders either do not understand the constitutions of their political parties or pretend not to in order to achieve certain political objectives. If a leader fails to uphold the constitution of his or her own political party, how could such a person be entrusted with national responsibilities in the event that the leader is elevated to the national government in a leadership position?

Thirdly, the recent developments in COPE force us to think about political identity.

How do politicians want to be identified? Do they want to leave a legacy of having been divisive, ignorant about their parties’ constitutions and being portrayed as powermongers? Alternatively, do they want to be remembered as astute leaders who did everything according to the book and as people who acted empathetically and in a dispassionate manner? Importantly, what identity do they want their political parties to have in society?

These are some of the very pertinent questions that are worth interrogating as we try to understand the mayhem that has engulfed COPE. As members of the party exchanged blows in front of the media, their identity and that of COPE were put on the spotlight. It is not immediately clear if these perpetrators see the bigger picture.

When emotions supersede logical reasoning, the end-result is not a good one.

Following the embarrassing incident where COPE leaders suspended one another, it is an opportune time for party leaders and party members to reflect on the incidents discussed above and ask themselves tough questions. One of them is whether COPE still wants to be a role-player post the 2024 general election or if it has made peace with the fact that it has become defunct and obsolete since its inception goal has run its course.

Mngomezulu is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of the Western Cape.

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