Cope: 'Messing up what looked like a good thing'

The Congress of the People (Cope) will find it almost impossible to convince voters to consider the party at next year’s local government elections, due to take place in less than six months.

Recent developments within Cope, with failed elective congresses that unofficially implemented the long-feared split, are enough to kill voters’ hopes in the party’s credibility. The battle for the presidency between founding president Mosiuoa Lekota and his deputy, Mbhazima Shilowa, has torn the party into pieces, and it would need a miracle to be pieced together again.

Both Shilowa and Lekota claim the presidency of the party.

While dedicated members of Cope might be in a state of confusion about the two-headed monster, one thing is certain: the party will battle to maintain its good performance in last year’s elections. Just six months after it was formed, Cope garnered 1,3-million votes.

If Cope takes the leadership battle to court, the case might take months to conclude, interfering with the campaign period for the local elections.

Reconvening the national congress might also only become a reality after the local government elections, as Cope will be doing a rushed job to remind the voters that the party still exists.

Common goal
There is one common goal that both Lekota and Shilowa aim to achieve, though—revive Cope in time for next year’s local government elections and campaign with a united political party.

“We have to fight the local government elections,” Cope national spokesperson Philip Dexter says, but the congress national committee is yet to decide on the party’s election strategy or programme.

“Impossible,” says Ebrahim Fakir, manager for governance institutions and processes at the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa. “In terms of organisation there is a mess and politically there is also a mess. If you still have Lekota and Shilowa having different visions of what kind of vehicle Cope should be, then there is no common ground. There is too much practically happening between the two of them, mentally, physically and politically for them to be able to work together,” Fakir says.

The fact that Cope’s support is spread across the country could also make it difficult for the party to quickly sort itself out within a short period. “If your support is scattered all over the country it does not help you during local government elections because you need a concentrated support. Those things cannot be planned for in several months,” Fakir says.

The party failed to win a single by-election in the nine it contested in July.

Executive director of research at the University of South Africa (Unisa) Tinyiko Maluleke says if Cope formalises the split now, the move will create a political dilemma. Cope is in the middle of its five-year term, which expires in 2014, and if the party’s factions go separate ways, it might create a problem in Parliament because the floor-crossing legislation that would have allowed for a new party to be introduced has been scrapped.

Says Maluleke: “A party whose mandate is hardly halfway through should at least strive to complete that mandate. If it splits, which Cope does Parliament acknowledge?”

Cope’s demise will probably not be a sudden death, rather a slow painful one, now that leaders from both factions are trying to salvage the little that is left of the third biggest party in the country.

If Cope survives the leadership row, it would only be after it has died and been resuscitated. It will be life after death, in Maluleke’s words.

Not clear face of the party
Another problem with Cope is that since its former parliamentary leader, Mvume Dandala, resigned, there has not been a clear face of the party. “South African politics is still personality-based. How does a party that still does not have a face compete in local government elections?” enquires Maluleke. “And we are only talking about leaders; if we were to talk about their policies we wouldn’t even know where to start.”

Maluleke called Cope’s infighting a “daylight robbery” of South African voters. “They put their trust in an entity that now evolves into something else. The way it looked at conception and the way it looked at the end of the process are two different things,” Maluleke says. “South Africans entrusted Cope with their votes, unaware that they were satisfying the narrow-minded, egotistic small number of people who were put in as caretaker leaders.”

Fakir believes the biggest problem within Cope, besides the egos and the hunger for power, is that Lekota and Shilowa have got “two genuinely different visions”, which each is determined to defend.

While the two factions were in agreement last week that the two-year mandate of the caretaker leadership ended on December 16, this week Lekota’s backers sang a different tune.

“There is no truth to the claim that the leadership structure of the organisation is constitutionally mandated to be dissolved after two years. There is no provision for this in the constitution of Cope,” says national spokesperson Dexter, who openly supports Lekota. “The status quo of the congress national committee and the congress working committee as the constitutionally mandated decision-making structures of Cope remains as it has been for the past two years,” he said.

If there was a prize for the failed leader of 2010 it would go to both Lekota and Shilowa, Maluleke says. “They really succeeded in messing up what looked like a good thing.”

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge is the Mail & Guardian's political editor. Raised in a rural village, she later studied journalism in a township where she fell in love with the medium of radio. This former radio presenter and producer previously worked as a senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian, and writes on politics, government, and anything that gives the disadvantaged, poor, and the oppressed a voice. Read more from Mmanaledi Mataboge


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