Ditch the bishop and take a stand

The Congress of the People (Cope) is seriously ill. The challenges it faces are immense: leadership battles, organisational disarray, near-insolvency, a vow of silence on issues of policy and ideology, failure to distinguish political and administrative leadership, a fear of embracing democratic norms and, the foundation of it all, no clear strategic vision.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Cope can still pull itself out of this sickly state. It is not terminally ill. Of course, recovery will require an acceptance of this diagnosis. Hopefully Philip Dexter’s denials of the problem are either insincere (he is a politician after all) or not widely shared among the Cope leadership (as one suspects). The dream of a black-led, multiracial opposition giving the ANC a genuine run for its political money need not yet be deferred. How so?

The two issues that demand prioritisation are the leadership crisis and the policy-cum-ideological silence. The leadership crisis is well-rehearsed. Cope must choose: it can either pretend that Bishop Mvume Dandala remains relevant, or it can ditch him as parliamentary leader.

Pretending he is relevant will cost the party. Dandala lacks the political experience and gravitas, even among Cope MPs, to be a successful parliamentary leader. He is not a great debater or a persuasive speaker. Truth be told, Dandala is purely a symbol of an early Cope that lacked the guts to embrace an open leadership contest and wrongly guessed that the elections would turn on morality rather than on issues of identity and policy.

Cope must accept its pre-election logic as fatally flawed (which is nothing to be embarrassed about) and find a quick, dignified way of getting rid of the bishop. He is now a liability. Failing to get rid of Dandala as parliamentary leader will definitely prevent Cope from building a credible parliamentary presence.

What’s the alternative, you might wonder? In the interim Mbhazima Shilowa must be the parliamentary leader. He commands greater respect than Dandala and has the more appropriate skill-set (a good speaker and a decent, skilled debater) for holding the ANC accountable.

But leadership crises will reappear in future. That is normal in politics. Whether such crises will be handled better depends on the answer to this question: does Cope have the will to embrace an internal political culture based on open, deliberative democratic norms, or is the party leadership chronically unable to let go of the bad habits they learned during their ANC years?

Cope must choose: either it can hang on to the idea of politicians who have “no personal ambition”, who are willing to “be deployed” as the party sees fit, and have “no policy views” other than the “party’s views”, or it can allow party leaders to compete openly, fairly and without acrimony for all leadership positions.

It would be wonderful if it chose the latter. It is about time South Africans saw the death of struggle-speak and the birth of a political culture based on honest contestation of ideas and leadership positions. This will require a fundamental shift in political culture that will prove something of an identity crisis for the likes of Mosiuoa Lekota. A failure to do so, however, really will reduce Cope to a Lite version of the ANC.

In terms of policy there has been less public debate about Cope’s wellbeing. This blind-spot has spilled over into the party’s internal structures. The truth is that it is impossible to say what Cope’s policy positions on key domestic or international issues are. In ideological terms no one can say whether Cope is liberal, conservative or moderate on social policies and moral issues. On the economic front one cannot pinpoint them on the spectrum of possibilities about the relationship between the state and the economy, so that guessing whether Cope may or may not endorse the bailing-out of failed industries, or a failed state-owned enterprise, becomes an exercise in crystal-ball-gazing.

One senior Cope leader described the party to me as “progressive”, but that is about as illuminating as describing it as “a force for good”. This failure to self-define will cost them. They must immediately start searching for a soul.

When that battle for Cope’s soul starts, the process should be a strategically crafty one. The party must choose: does it want to first find a set of overarching principles that will guide policy and hope that this will pull votes? Or, should they audit the needs and views of their supporters, and potential supporters, and build policies that will appease them?

This is tricky. Politics is about gaining power, after all. Lekota’s short-sighted attempt to express anti-affirmative action sentiments on the basis of a principled support of equality won possibly a handful of white votes.

But—leaving aside Lekota’s failure to grasp affirmative action’s compatibility with substantive equality—the majority of the electorate are black folks, most of whom remain poor, uneducated and, frankly, disenfranchised. Principled policy choices based on social justice must speak to their needs.

This is not to jump the gun on Cope’s internal policy debates. But the party must skilfully debate the policy issues by taking account of the grand overarching political and moral principles and by crafting vote-pulling policies that are directly responsive to the needs and views of voters. Fortunately, in a still-unequal society like ours, these aims mostly coincide.

Finally, for these strategic goals to see the light of day, Cope cannot continue to be in such organisational disarray. It is unclear how many branches exist (one leader answered my query with the telling response: “It depends on how you define a branch”), what the rules are that govern them, when and how the policy and elective conferences will happen, or how the financial health of the party can be improved.

The first step towards eliminating these organisational headaches is for Cope to separate the leadership that thinks through the content of its political programmes and a technical staff complement that executes the political programme effectively. For example, Cope’s responses to tough media questions are often poorly communicated. A skilled politico such as Dexter should be part of a brains trust deciding on a response to an issue, but a technically skilled communicator might have a better touch, in terms of tone, style and register.

In the next 12 months Cope’s ability to hold democratic internal elections, develop a clear set of ideological and policy positions, improve its relations with the media, develop a plan to become financially sustainable, embrace democratic norms by rejecting struggle-speak and promoting open leadership battles, and set up well-defined branches across the country will determine whether it will be crowned the comeback kid in 2011 and 2014 or whether it will die a quiet political death after showing much initial promise. For the sake of rejuvenating multiparty democracy, let’s be optimistic about its trajectory.

Eusebius Mckaiser is a political analyst at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a joint initiative of Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg

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