Lekota likely to lead Cope to the polls

Mosiuoa Lekota was likely to emerge as president of the Congress of the People (Cope) as the new party on Monday chose leaders to take it into a potentially bruising election battle against the African National Congress (ANC) next year.

About 4 000-odd delegates at Cope’s inaugural conference in Bloemfontein were mulling a proposal—meant to ensure continuity as the party fine-tunes its policies—that the interim leadership stay in place for the polls and beyond.

Cope sources said the top posts were likely to come up for review in two-and-a-half years only, which could leave Lekota and deputy interim chairperson Mbhazima Shilowa at the helm until 2011.

Lekota told reporters that he was ready to take on the mantle, saying he had already taken considerable risks in defecting from the ruling party in protest in October after Thabo Mbeki was ousted as president.

“To initiate this process has not been easy. We need to see this organisation be a success and everything I must do, I will do. There is really nothing I will shun.”

He angrily dismissed persistent reports of a power struggle between himself and Shilowa as ANC propaganda.

“There is and there will not be a contest.”

“The ANC is generating something like this so that this organisation can fail,” he said, adding that it smacked of apartheid-era dirty tricks.

Interim general secretary Charlotte Lobe confirmed that Cope was more likely to settle the leadership issue by consensus rather than a ballot.

This has been criticised as undemocratic, but Lobe said Cope had not yet had the time to cement provincial party structures that would allow a leadership election through proportional representation.

National communications chief Phillip Dexter said the Bloemfontein meeting might yet put the issue to the vote on Monday if delegates failed to agree.

“We are waiting for the delegates from the provinces to come back and tell us whether we need to vote on this.”

Lobe said the party’s top structure would count a dozen people.
There will be a president, two deputy presidents, a general secretary and deputy, as well as a national treasurer and a team of six people respectively heading policy, communications, organisation, international relations, security and protocol.

Delegates have retreated behind closed doors here to hammer out policy, but Lekota said it was unlikely the party would be able to show its hand on hot-button issues like the crisis in Zimbabwe by the time the conference ends on Tuesday.

That is identified in an organisational report as one of the issues on which Cope is frequently pressed to take a position, along with the Middle East conflict and its alleged links to Mbeki.

Lekota angrily denied that the former president was the power behind the new party, born out of his political fall four months ago. “He told the ANC that he had nothing to do with Cope and that we never sought his permission to launch. Who else can speak better for the man than the man himself?

Cope admitted in a conference document on Monday that it could be caught short if President Kgalema Motlanthe were to announce an early election date, possibly in March.

It would have little time to launch its election machinery and feared that a second round of voter registration could be off the cards, potentially keeping Cope supporters from casting their ballots.

But Monday nonetheless found Cope members with something to smile about.

The party formally adopted the Congress of the People as its name, a few days after winning a court battle against the ANC for the right to use the name of the historical event in 1955.

And its claims to being a political home for South Africans of all creeds and colours got an early morning boost as a retired farmer from Limpopo province drove to the University of Free State campus to sign up and handed his R30 membership fee to Lekota.

“I joined Cope for two reasons. Your policy about agriculture, to produce food, and secondly the way you intend handling affirmative action, which would not discriminate against anyone,” Pieter Grobler said to loud applause.

Lekota promised that the next days could see more defections to Cope in the shape of high-level ANC members.

“When an organisation compels its members to make pledges of loyalty, it must mean that it has a sense of lost loyalty ... People don’ t like to be imprisoned. So watch this space ... They will jump.”

Meanwhile, tempers flared on Monday evening as police stopped carloads of Cope members from canvassing in Mangaung near Bloemfontein to avert clashes with ANC rivals in the township.

“They wanted to go there in a motorcade of something like 60 cars. But the Cope leadership saw that there was a possibility of conflict and intervened,” a police officer told the South African Press Association.

He said police stopped the Cope motorcade at the entrance to the University of the Free State and party heavyweight Mluleki George tried to placate young members, but with limited success.

Thando Hermans,a youth delegate from the Northern Cape, said Cope members were frustrated because they could not reach voters while the ANC was actively campaigning in and around Bloemfontein.

“I know the police are doing their job but it is unfair. The ANC is there.

“But we had to calm people down because we do not help our cause by emotion,” he said as television cameras captured the commotion.

The ANC has launched a political counter-offensive in Bloemfontein during Cope’s three-day launch. ANC president Jacob Zuma is to address a rally in Mangaung on Tuesday.—Sapa

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