CONGRESS OF THE PEOPLE: A promise betrayed

 
The future of The Congress of the People (Cope) looks bleak, as bitter leadership clashes have dented its moralist orientation, big business is reluctant to been seen supporting opponents of the ANC, and black professionals and the middle classes have been alienated by the party’s stand against affirmative action, writes MCEBISI NDLETYANA.  
 
   

In examining the performance of Cope in the 2009 elections, it is clear that the party’s appeal was undercut by, among other factors, persistent racial inequality as it tried to project a trans-racial image. Then there is the excessive reliance of many on political office as a source of income, rather than furthering the party’s principles.

 

Cope at first enjoyed extensive media coverage to the detriment of the ANC, because of high-profile defections and the news value of a party seen as rivalling the ANC. But at crucial periods during the election campaign it lost visibility.

 

Founders Mosioua Lekota, Mbhazima Shilowa and Mluleki George asserted that what had become of the ANC after the 2007 national conference at Polokwane was a deviation from the ‘real ANC’. 

 
This was when a lack of funds stalled the printing of posters, already delayed by a squabble over whose face should appear on them, and when ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe prevailed on the SABC not to give live coverage to the launch of Cope’s election manifesto.

Apart from the fact that this was a confusion of roles between the ruling party and that of a public institution, Mantashe insisted that media coverage be determined by proven public support. His logic was specious, to say the least, as media attention is attracted by newsworthiness and not by popular vote.

The rise of Cope

 

Cope sprang into existence on 16 December 2008 from a schism in the ANC, and retained the liberation tradition by claiming descent from the pre-2007 ANC. Founders Mosioua Lekota, Mbhazima Shilowa and Mluleki George asserted that what had become of the ANC after the 2007 national conference at Polokwane was a deviation from the ‘real ANC’.

 

Lekota wrote: ‘the leadership has taken a direct and unadulterated departure from the Freedom Charter by calling for a political solution in the matter of the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions vs the president of the ANC. What happened to “There shall be equality before law”? Or are we now to have political solutions to every citizen’s criminal case?’

 

Thabo Mbeki, removed as president of the country, asserted that the ‘cult of personality’ allowed by Jacob Zuma would have been opposed by all past leaders of the ANC, ‘with every fibre in their revolutionary bones’.A gathering at the Sandton Convention Centre prior to the founding conference of Cope drew 5 000 people from across the country and various stations in life, at their own cost. An organisational report  claimed 428 000 paid-up members.
 
 Role of symbolism
 

The symbolism of a people’s movement stretched to the location and date of the party’s formation
– Bloemfontein and 16 December. It was there that the ANC was founded in 1912, and its military wing, UmKhonto We Sizwe (MK), was formed on 16 December, revered in the pre-1994 period as the Day of the Covenant.

 

The name of the new party, Congress of the People, was an even more obvious claim to the legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle, being derived from the historic mass multiracial gathering in 1955, at which the seminal Freedom Charter was adopted. 
 
Under the slogan ‘A new agenda for change and hope for all’, Cope made morality, constitutionalism and meritocracy as the centrepiece of its election strategy.  
 
Cope's election platform

 

Under the slogan ‘A new agenda for change and hope for all’, Cope made morality, constitutionalism and meritocracy as the centrepiece of its election strategy. The manifesto offered a clean leadership with integrity, based on constitutional values and emphasising an independent judiciary.

Cope sought to capitalise on the moral revulsion at a possible Jacob Zuma presidency. Cleared of rape, he had been elected ANC president in December 2007 while still facing charges of corruption.

Cope’s stance on affirmative action appealed to white professionals, but not to their black counterparts.

Prof. Barney Pityana, ordained minister and then vice-chancellor and principal of the University of South Africa, in his speech to the national convention, charged Zuma with lacking ‘moral consciousness’. The appointment of Bishop Mvume Dandala, former head of the Methodist Church in southern Africa, as presidential candidate underscored this moralist approach.

Part of Lekota’s trans-racial appeal was his critical stance on affirmative action, which he denounced as racist and an obstacle to building a non-racial society.

An emphasis on meritocracy completed the two-pronged election strategy, and the party zeroed in on the slow rate of delivery and poor quality of essential services, citing incompetence and scarcity of skills in the public service, exacerbated by the ANC policy of cadre deployment.
  
Materialism vs values

 

In the election build-up it became clear that materialism rather than value-based considerations would largely determine the way people voted. Targeted constituencies, though sharing a value system, were irreconcilable, as they were separated by racial inequalities. Business chose profit-making over being seen supporting Cope.

 

Lekota was unhappy with Dandala as presidential candidate, but Shilowa and his supporters backed the man who came from a tradition of black theology, and was a former chairperson of the radical SA Students’ Organisation. Cope became mired in a leadership dispute.

 

Yet the party’s future looks bleak, as it promised upright leadership, only to be mired in ugly leadership rivalry, as well as a leadership exodus after the elections.

 

Cope’s stance on affirmative action appealed to white professionals, but not to their black counterparts. The Black Lawyers’ Association (BLA) and the Black Management Forum (BMF) attacked the party, with Andiswa Ndoni of the BLA charging that Cope was ‘determined to reverse the few gains made by black people … in order to attract white votes’.

Black professional bodies tagged Cope as ‘anti-black’. To them the party was essentially, to borrow from the president of the Congress of SA Trade Unions, Sdumo Dlamini, the ‘new black DA [Democratic Alliance]’.

 

Unrealised ‘defections’ from the ANC, and a number of high-profile defectors returning, undercut the storyline of a haemorrhaging ANC and ascendant Cope. Lack of money cast doubts on the notion that Cope was the ‘new show in town’. The party could not generate enough funds for election posters, suggesting the moneyed class were not convinced Cope was a worthy investment.
  
Falling on its own sword

 

Cope won 1 256 133 of the 17 389 246 votes cast, the third-highest number among 26 parties, and it had strong support among low-income earners and the unemployed.

 

Yet the party’s future looks bleak, as it promised upright leadership, only to be mired in ugly leadership rivalry, as well as a leadership exodus after the elections. Individuals seemed determined to secure positions at any cost, either for egotistical reasons or to secure material benefits.

 

Political office has long been the main source of income for South Africa’s black political elite, who as in other post-colonial states come from the impoverished masses. Most did not have technical or professional skills to secure employment elsewhere.

 

This also compromised the party’s ability to stick strictly to principles, and contributed to its failure to carry its auspicious start to full fruition. In the final analysis, Cope therefore did betray its promises. 

Summary of an article published in the Journal of African Elections 9(2).

Dr Mcebisi Ndletyana, senior political research specialist, Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery programme,HSRC.