How Cope lost it

When Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa broke away from the ANC they claimed to speak for the 40% of ANC members who voted for Thabo Mbeki in Polokwane.

The move created a buzz, as it suggested the ANC’s hegemony might be shaken for the first time since 1994.

The potential was there. Cope’s first consultative meetings in Cape Town and the Eastern Cape were well attended and struck a chord with many. When it announced that about 50 ANC MPs would cross to it, the ANC went into panic mode.

Six months later Cope failed to poll even half the vaunted 40%. What happened?

The party ran the wrong campaign altogether—and even that started very late. In February, when I interviewed leaders, not one poster was up. The ANC started taking Jacob Zuma to voters and key opinion-makers at home and abroad in about September last year.

Cope was taking it easy and told me that other parties were peaking too early. It’s a moot question whether it ever peaked.

And when the campaign got going it focused on the rich, educated and opinionated. Being a middle-class party and targeting this group was fair enough, as such people were at the forefront of questioning whether South Africa could afford a morally compromised president.

But elections are not won by preaching to the converted.

The party invested in top communicators JJ Tabane, Sipho Ngwema and Phillip Dexter, all with experience of dealing with the media and crucial in projecting Cope as a modern, professional organisation.

But it was invisible in the townships and villages where most South Africans live. Lekota addressed Afrikaners, business people and professionals, but Shilowa and the party’s presidential candidate Mvume Dandala spent little time staging township rallies and running door-to-door campaigns.

As the home province of many senior Cope leaders, the Eastern Cape was identified as the strongest area of potential growth.

But the party did not work hard to establish itself in branches, the lifeblood of the ANC.

After it won 10 Western Cape by-elections by default, because the ANC failed to register candidates in time, it fell into a complacent slumber.

Subsequently it suffered devastating losses in by-elections in the Eastern Cape and other provinces, which it then claimed were not its focus.

Then Cope suddenly invented a PR nightmare by deciding to elect an outsider, Dandala, as its presidential candidate.

It was a clear vote of no confidence in the party’s president, Lekota, who publicly questioned the decision, saying he was unaware of it and not party to it.

Underlying the move were concerns that he might be too closely associated with Mbeki’s Polokwane losers and that he had made reckless remarks, including questioning the affirmative action policies that most of Cope’s young professionals support and have benefited from.

Dandala projected the right moral image, as a contrast to Zuma. But he is no politician and inspires no confidence when he addresses mass meetings. He could not be relied on to woo undecided voters.

Compounding the confusion was the decision to place Lekota on the ballot rather than Dandala. Apparently sulking, Lekota did not appear at events he was supposed to address, even sparking rumours that the ANC was luring him back.

Another power struggle ensued when the politicians—including Lekota and central committee member Mlungisi Hlongwane—felt spokespeople and other lowly officials were overruling them.

The party had already made a poor decision by appointing Hlongwane elections head. The former Sanco president is known for exaggerating his influence—he previously claimed that Sanco had six million members who would follow him into Cope.

Predictably, Hlongwane did not perform and resented being called to account by people he considered party employees.

In a hilarious sideshow the ANC made a “major announcement” that he was rejoining it.

Insignificant as it was, the defection showed that the party was disunited.

No one realistically expected Cope to win the elections and it had little time to organise a campaign, but it failed to do the hard grind of penetrating the townships, villages and wards.

It spent too much of the little time available in wining and dining the more enlightened members of our society and neglecting grass-roots work.

What it did succeed in doing was to invigorate ANC supporters and spur the ruling party’s election machinery into its highest gear since 1994.

It has two full years to prepare for the next municipal elections. Will it Cope?

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane

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