A "misguided quest for the face of the party" was what fractured the Congress of the People (Cope), newly elected party president Mosioua Lekota said this weekend. But the party promised it was no longer concerned with leadership battles.
Lekota this weekend pleaded with South African voters to "send us on a mission to fulfil and commit to you as we promised", as Cope's first elective congress drew to a close in Boksburg.
And while the party's congress was a far cry from its chaotic inaugural congress in 2010, the legitimacy of this weekend's congress will ultimately be decided by voters, who will decide if Cope is back from the dead or if the congress was simply another non-starter.
Lekota was declared the rightful leader of the party by a court in October; the end of a three-year-long battle over the leadership of Cope with its co-founder, Mbhazima Shilowa.
On the cusp of this weekend's congress on Friday morning, a last-minute attempt to interdict the event was thwarted in court. The high court in Pretoria dismissed, with costs, attempts by members aligned to Shilowa, to stop the congress from going ahead.
"There is absolutely no reason why these people, who are no longer members of Cope, should continue to concern themselves with the activities of the organisation," said Cope spokesperson Johann Abrie about the court challenge.
This weekend, following his unopposed election, Lekota said a flurry of Cope defectors had renewed their membership since the October court judgment. He surely hopes the judgment will add credence to his faction's claim that the party's problems were of Shilowa's making, and that with that faction defeated, Cope's worst days are behind it.
It's new national office bearers are:
- Mosioua Lekota – president
- Willy Madisha – deputy president
- Lyndall Shope-Mafole – general secretary
- Deirdre Carter – deputy general secretary
- Pakes Dikgetsi – national chairperson
- Johnny Haung – national treasurer
An amendment to the party's constitution allowed for the creation of the position of national chairperson.
The congress resolved that in future all Cope members, not just congress delegates, will elect the president of the party.
Attendants of the congress also debated the party's constitution. The document starts off with the belief that "all South Africans are inherently good" and should therefore be given the opportunity to become "great".
It also states that the party must hold a national congress every five years, within the six months preceding a national election.
The party believes that the president of the country must be directly elected. Lekota this weekend spoke of the recall of Thabo Mbeki as president as "unconstitutional" and said those who thought Cope was only formed because it was unhappy with Mbeki's removal had a poor understanding of South African history.
"Parliament was summoned to rubber-stamp a misguided decision taken by a coterie of ANC leaders elsewhere to remove Mbeki," Lekota said.
A video message of support from Mbeki's mother was played to the congress delegates.
Lekota then moved on to President Jacob Zuma, with the declaration that something "urgent" needed to be done to "save our country and the Constitution". He said many in the ANC agreed with this view.
Cope was not formed to be a party of opposition, he said, but fully intends to "win power" from the ANC.
In an effort to present the election as credible (and possibly to stave off future attempts to delegitimise the results in court), the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa was in charge of the election process.
With the election behind it, Cope will begin the arduous task of trying to win back the trust of voters. It will be an uphill climb, as analysts have long predicted Cope will not keep its 30 seats in Parliament, which it obtained in 2009.
Collective for Democracy
On December 5 last year, the party announced it had merged with little-known Christian outfit, the National Republic Party.
There was little mention of the party at this weekend's congress.
Two weeks later, Cope announced it had formed a coalition called the Collective for Democracy, consisting of the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), the Freedom Front Plus (FF Plus), the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the United Christian Democratic Party.
Lekota said the coalition was still in place and while opposition parties could win power alone, they stood a better chance of this in coalitions. He made it clear that Cope considered itself the "co-ordinator" of the coalition's work.
The party hopes to get 51% of the vote at the national polls this year, but it remains to be seen whether it can resuscitate the attention of the 1.3-million voters who supported it in 2009.
Lekota's plans were greeted with cynicism by analysts such as Gareth van Onselen, who remarked on Twitter: "Well, 50% to go, then."