Today a number of newspapers have reported on a discussion document I have drafted in which I have put forward my personal view on the state of the Congress of the People. It is unfortunate that the response has been to sensationalize issues rather than to engage with the content I have raised.
Any suggestion that I have said that COPE is dead is simply false. I have clearly articulated the possibility of renewal. Similarly, any suggestion that I blame the President of COPE for the state of the party is also false. I stated clearly that we as the collective leadership are responsible for the state of the party.
It is also untrue that this document is part of a strategy to unseat the President, as stated by Mr Sipho Ngwema, a political charlatan. I have been a member of COPE since its conception. I have the right to express my views. Not everything I have stated can possibly be correct, but the point of the debate is to reflect, criticise and correct. I trust members of the party will engage the document and the views in it in the same manner.
Draft discussion document COPEing with the Crisis in the Congress of the People: Our responsibility in the National Democratic Revolution - Phillip Dexter
1. The experience of being a member of the Congress of the People (COPE) has been a significant one. While being one fraught with tension, anxiety and even fear and loathing, it has also been one of liberation, comradeship, warmth and excitement. But this experience would be a worthless one if it were to be considered as merely a personal journey, now recorded for the sake of posterity. It has to have been a journey that bears fruit for the people of our country; otherwise the Congress of the People would not be an organisation that lives up to its name or its mission. 2. The liberation movement in our country, the African National Congress, was established to free the majority of people in our country from the bondage of colonial and imperial systems of exploitation and oppression and from the product of these in the form of apartheid. Together with its allies, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and their predecessor organisations, it later developed further to free us from the ravages of a rapacious capitalism and to shield us from the trap of authoritarian forms of socialism and populism. This movement was supposed to win political power and transform our country, making it democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and one in which all people experience relative prosperity. 3. The ANCs core values of democracy, non-racialism, non-sexism and a bias in favour of the poor, are central to its relevance. Living and implementing these values practically is the manner in which the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) is supposed to be undertaken. After the 1994 democratic breakthrough, the contradictions in the movement, many born of its own successes, were beginning to weaken the ANC, SACP and COSATU. By 2009 it was clear that the organisations that made up the National Liberation Movement (NLM) had been reduced to being, at least partially, if not substantially, vehicles for patronage, primitive accumulation, corruption and excess. While genuine debates took place in the NLM about these contradictions, a failure to attend to them brought about a situation where these contradictions burst out into the open. The split or rupture in the NLM that formed the Congress of the People occurred partially around these issues. Unlike the split that formed the PAC, COPE was supposed to return the NLM to its core program, albeit it in more modern and relevant terms. The people who formed COPE stated a clear intention to adhere to the vision of the Freedom Charter. The political objective of COPE was to provide an alternative - a 3rd way that sought to marry the best of the progressive or Left tradition of the NDR with the best of the liberal or centrist traditions of the opponents of the apartheid system who were traditionally not members of the NLM. 4. In the aftermath of the 2011 local government elections, one of the most significant elections since 1994, where the results show a decisive swing away from COPE, it is incumbent on those of us in the party to take a long hard look at ourselves and ask the question; have we achieved what we set out to do? Ours was a mission to change the course of history, to ensure that the NDR stayed on track and to realign politics in our country. We have had both spectacular successes and significant failures. There has been both good and bad in abundance. What is clear is that any chance of a 3rd way succeeding has been potentially laid to rest in this election. For COPE to grow and remain relevant, this project needs to be rescued. The question before us in COPE at present is therefor, where to now? 5. This is not just a question for the Congress of the People. Service delivery failures, increasing inequality, massive structural unemployment, rampant corruption and looting of the public coffers, patronage, crime, ill-health and high occurrence of preventable diseases, low skills levels, market failures, state failures, institutional decay and many other issues are not caused by the current political parties that exist, nor are its leaders responsible for these. But all of our political formations bear responsibility for the state of inertia our country is experiencing, even if they do not bear responsibility for the system of apartheid that created this dreadful legacy. It is no wonder that the symbol of politics and its failures in our country is the “Cabriolet” toilet, the metaphor for the predicament of the poor. These toilets are governance failure in its naked form-a toilet, meant to be the most private of places, placed under the blue sky with ablutions turned into a spectator sport! We therefore must challenge those in the larger body of the liberation movement and those in its political opposition to take this opportunity to do the same as we seek to do. We must rise above the swirling mass of filth that has become one of the defining characteristics of our politics and say; we can do better for our people. COPE did promise to be an alternative in this respect. The punishment the electorate has meted out to the party means that however valid this project, unless it is turned around and re-launched, it will go nowhere. 6. It is worth reminding ourselves of our history, short though it is in formal terms. The organisation where most of the COPE leaders and members came from, the African National Congress was and still is one of the most significant political movements of the 20th and 21st centuries. A national liberation movement established before many others, the ANC has existed in various phases and guises. While its challenges have always been significant, none were so daunting as the challenges of governance. Being a party in power and an organisation for all the citizens of our country but with a bias toward the majority of workers, women, youth, the disabled and the poor in general, the ANC and its allies descended into a crisis in the late 1990s, after they failed to grapple properly with the contradictions visited upon the movement by the impact of a number of phenomena, including; 6.1 Being a governing party and the temptations of the power of office and of the opportunities for patronage, accumulation and corruption, 6.2 Being a new governing party attempting to establish new systems of local, provincial and national governance, 6.3 The paucity of analysis of post-apartheid political economy and of the new, global “order”, 6.4 The tension between historical categories of race and the formation of a new national identity and the impact of the transition on categories such as class, gender, age, sexuality and different ability, 6.5 The collapse or failure of traditional references for managing change, whether in the form of reforms, transformation or revolution, such as the socialist or social democratic ones, 6.6 The impact of freedom and democracy and of the new obligations on all citizens of the new constitutional order, 6.7 The legacy of use of and future management imperatives of our natural resources-water, land, minerals and those products of these-energy, commodities, services, 6.8 The relationship between the state and the market, the monopolistic and oligopolistic nature of some markets and the weakness of the state. 7. As a result, of these phenomena and the forces unleashed by them, the negative and reactionary tendencies that led to an increased factionalism that had always been a significant feature of politics of the liberation movement intensified. These were obviously exploited by remnants of the former regime and by new and forming domestic and international interests that sought to capture the liberation movement and through this means, continue to exercise state power or exercise it for the sake of personal interest. As the crisis of the NLM deepened, interests coalesced around individuals who fought bitterly for leadership positions. The fall-out of this fight led to the end of many illustrious political careers, to the end of decades of relative organisational cohesion and unity as well as to the subsequent purging and resignation of many comrades from the ANC, SACP and COSATU unions. 8. The formation of COPE was articulated as an attempt to deal with these contradictions by asserting a minimal program that would; 8.1 Defend the constitution and the rule of law as this was observed to be threatened by a corrupt and opportunistic tendency in the leadership of the NLM, 8.2 Protect the citizens of our country from corruption as this was also seen as a significant tendency in the leadership of the NLM, 8.3 Ensure a political program and policies that would offer social democratic alternatives as a means to managing and transforming the various socio-economic contradictions of our society, 8.4 Restore the dignity to our country that had been eroded by dubious leadership behaviour and questionable leadership credentials, 8.5 Focus our national attention on building an inclusive South African identity-this had been arguably undermined by a narrow focus on race that sought to define it as a category to justify accumulation by any means necessary. 9. While COPE started with an incredible energy and a significant impact, it quickly degenerated into a morass of leadership struggles, policy fudges and endless debates, mostly left unresolved bad organisational practices and a culture that mimicked the worst found in the ANC. Among the worst features of COPE have been; 9.1 Individuals being enticed away from COPE with money, favours, offices and with the promise of relief from the stressful environment of the party, 9.2 When it came to election lists in 2009, these were manipulated. No consequences were ever felt by those who perpetrated this corruption. As a result, this practice was repeated in the 2011 local government list process. Currently, there are Mayoral and councillor candidates who are not only inappropriate, but no member of the party can tell anyone how they were selected and by who. It is as if they fell from the sky, 9.3 Funds in the party are not managed well and are routinely abused and while those excesses in Parliament were investigated and followed up in one instance, little to nothing has ever been done about the abuse of funds at provincial level and in the party HQ. There is little to no accountability for funds managed at a national level in the party itself. No proper reporting of these funds-how much there are, how they have been spent and who decided on the expenditure-has been given to date, 9.4 Racial or ethnic mobilization is common in the party and while this is to be expected in a country such as ours, the failure of the party leadership to deal with this tendency is simply not acceptable. The party has not created truly non-racial culture and in many instances groupings or cliques exist that mobilise people along racial lines, 9.5 Policies are routinely fudged and while an alternative vision and program is projected, there is little in content to this that distinguishes the party from its opponents, 9.6 A sometimes almost rabid, church-based moralism is rampant in the party and while the values associated with Christianity are not wrong in and of themselves, the blurring of church and party is worrying in a secular society, 9.7 Most debilitating has been the ongoing behaviour of a faction of individuals who have misused resources, ridden rough-shod over the party constitution, defied standing decisions of the party, used force and intimidation to stay in interim leadership positions and have sought to rig elections. This grouping, funded by shady figures, even now wages a legal battle against the party. Despite all this behaviour, the party leadership allows these people to work within the party, using its resources, to attempt to destroy the organisation. At every turn where these renegades could be dealt with they have been spared the proverbial political knife. It beggars belief that loyal members of the party have been starved of resources, denied access to party offices and have had to fight elections with little to no resources while those who have worked to destroy the party have been left to proceed at their own leisure to do so, 9.8 In many instances, staff in the party have been treated so poorly as to warrant legal action in some cases. This kind of action has only been avoided by the loyalty of such abused people to the party and its leadership. To claim that the party is progressive when such practices are rife is a cruel joke. COPE has its own “Aurora’s”, where staff are not paid yet those in political offices have their expenses paid, stay in expensive hotels and generally use resources as if they are their own personal ones, 9.9 Factionalism to defend the interests of one or two national leaders has not only been tolerated but it has also been openly promoted. Individuals seen to be practicing this type of behaviour are not only allowed to get away with it, but are seen to be protected by those in higher office. Along with this has gone a pattern of gossiping and of passing judgment on individuals where those who have been guilty of even worse behaviour themselves openly talk about the lives of some members in the party. While claiming piety, these chatterers have been able to get away with the most awful of actions, including in some instances in almost ruining the lives of some of their fellow party members, 9.10 A small group of individuals have dominated the running of the National Parliamentary Caucus and while in some respects these efforts have paid off in terms of a perception of being an effective party, many MPs do no work at all with no consequences for their lack of performance. Constituency management is an absolute mess, making representation and servicing of those who voted for the party a joke. Resources are not optimally utilized and the group running Parliament use resources with little regard for democracy, accountability or effectiveness, 9.11 Basic administrative and organisational issues have been left unattended to in COPE such as the finalisation of the constitution, setting up a credible membership database, communications with provinces, regions and branches and other capacity needed to run a modern political party. These are routinely raised but nothing is ever done about them. 9.12 Despite all these negatives features, COPE did break the mold of politics in our country. Significant numbers of Black people voted for COPE in 2009, that is against the ANC. Significant numbers of White, Coloured and Indian people voted for COPE against the DA, a traditionally White party in the same election. This trend was rolled back somewhat in the local government elections, but the objective of creating an alternative is still a valid one. 10. What does this brief history and analysis highlight? 10.1 While the Congress of the People was established as a political alternative to the ruling party, a combination of its history, its leadership weaknesses, the material conditions under which it finds itself, the lack of a clear program and of the struggle over the direction of the party itself have left it as being a somewhat smaller version of the ruling party, with a couple of add-ons in terms of policy positions and in some instances, behaviour no better than in the ruling party itself. It is now clear that the developments within COPE itself are a continuation of these contradictions and are making the objectives of the party distant if not improbable ones. There can be no reasonable excuse offered for failures and weaknesses such as those outlined above. This is basically a leadership failure and there are none of the current and passed leaders of the party who are immune from this criticism, 10.2 While the ANC and COPE suffer from similar illnesses and weaknesses, the main opposition party in our country, the Democratic Alliance, has its own flaws. Like the ANC and COPE, the DA is an organisation that represents everything from conservatives to social democrats, with some liberals stuck in the middle in their case. The DA has been unable to offer any policy or strategy that promises to break the structure of race, class, gender, age and ability relations in our country. Getting the trains to run on time is a feat worthy of some praise, but the real challenge of our country is to extend services to those who do not have them. The DA cannot claim to have made any significant progress in this regard. The turn in Black voters to the DA in this election, while interesting, is not as marked or significant as is claimed by commentators. Basically, in this elections, the historical racial patterns of voting have been entrenched and that feature of our society is even more pronounced in this election, where Black voters have again returned the ANC in spite of all the manifest problems of service delivery failures, corruption and excess, 10.3 The ANC revels in the language of Marxism and revolution while implementing at best a reformist agenda. COPE languishes in the zone of preaching difference, yet in truth offering not much different at all. The DA uses the language of liberalism but it is not clear that it does anything but conserve the current status quo, with the exception of running more efficient administrations. As a result, it simply reinforces the patterns of under-development inherited from the apartheid era. It also claims clean governance but has been involved in several corruption scandals after which no action has been taken. In the Eden municipality, those who were found guilty of fraud appeared at the highest positions on the party lists again at the next elections. In the Overberg, dodgy property deals have been undertaken with no consequences for those involved in these, 10.4 These contradictions and the manifest failures of all of the parties to deal with the excesses that are a feature of our countries culture, point to a stark reality we must all face. Politics in our country needs to be radically shaken up. The traditional sources of radicalism; socialist and Marxist organisations, trade unions, single-issue based organisations and even radical or progressive liberals, are either compromised by where they sit politically-in parties where they serve at the pleasure of their bosses-or are dislocated from any mass base that could mobilize people for a radical agenda of change, 10.5 This ongoing inertia in a country with abundant natural resources, energetic and hard working people and first world infrastructure and potential, is testimony to the lack of vision of our politicians. The ANC track record is one of 17 years of many missed opportunities. While macro-economic policy has ensured stability in our markets, this stability has been utilized to reinforce patterns of development and underdevelopment and to accommodate a section of the previously excluded Black majority into the working and middle classes, but also to continue to exclude the rural poor and the economic migrants who had flooded the urban areas. At local government level, in many areas, government has all but collapsed. There are municipalities, provinces and government departments that have been managed well, but these are in patches, are uneven and often are so in spite of everything the ANC does, 10.6 COPEs track record is too short to really measure its governance potential and while the party has dealt firmly with one or two instances of corruption, maladministration and political degeneracy, in truth it has allowed corruption to continue unattended to in its structures. A party that cannot deal with members in its own ranks who are charged and have been found guilty of corruption and of questionable behaviour cannot seriously ask the electorate to trust it to be any different from the incumbent parties. 11. Given this situation, can the NDR be salvaged by any of these parties and if so, how? There are a number of possible scenarios for our country. Among these are; 11.1 Good governance and a sustainable social compact for transformation, or, 11.2 Bad governance, populism, authoritarianism and corruption, or, 11.3 Good administration and no transformation, 11.4 The ANC as it is could continue to dominate politically, or if challenged, begin to use the state machinery, brute force, populist anger and race hatred to mobilize its constituency to protect the trappings of power and the wealth accumulated by the new and emerging elite, 11.5 The DA could grow and challenge the ANC for power in a number of areas locally and provincially and begin to exercise this power to stop radical transformation while advancing good administration, 11.6 COPE could grow and become a kingmaker and enter into coalitions with either of these political parties to try to change the nature of practices of governance for the better while preserving and supporting a radical transformation agenda. 12. In reality, there is bound to be a situation where all three of these scenarios play out along side each other. It raises profound questions for the leadership of these parties and for COPE in particular as these have committed to something different to the two dominant parties. Since the policy differences are fairly limited, the question as to whether parties can work together at all levels of government for the sake of stability and to maximize the potential of our society is a significant one. Alternatively, can coalitions of some of these parties change the governance situation radically enough to ensure the dynamic of politics in our country shifts? 12.1 The key issue is ensuring that whichever of these scenarios is dominant, there is a proper debate on policy issues and choices to ensure that alternatives are worked out and implemented. Any more delays in dealing with the challenges of development will see increases in civil unrest, ongoing violent crime and a situation where the country edges to the tipping point of anarchy and disorder or of a lacklustre culture of ‘no real motion’. Once we reach this point, there is little prospect of return without a radical break, perhaps even a violent one. 13. COPE faces what can only be described as an impossible choice in these scenarios. Since it has failed to attract significant electoral support, for both objective and subjective reasons, it cannot play the strategic role it was formed to, except in certain instances where it holds the balance of power. If it works with the DA against the ANC, it may limit corruption and poor administration, but it may be unable to implement a transformation agenda and will then become politically irrelevant to the masses of our people. If it works with the ANC against the DA, it could become co-opted by those corrupt forces in the NLM and be compromised. Since it is has not emerged as the ruling party in any municipality, its choice is to stay as a principled opposition or find a way to get the dominant parties to cooperate for better governance. 14. COPE must therefore discuss these challenges and choices. It must also discuss the radical policy agenda needed to shift the current socio-political and political economic status quo. Among the key issues are; 14.1 Market rigidities precipitated by monopoly and oligopoly businesses in key sectors such as energy generation, telecommunications, motor vehicle manufacturing and others. These cause pricing distortions and drive up the costs of doing business. Radical deregulation and the removal of protections for some industries and sectors are necessary to free up businesses to compete and allow new entrants into the market. Capital in our country has successfully captured a section of the elite and given them a stake in this status quo. They therefore simply fail to deal with it at the expense of citizens, 14.2 A large pool of unskilled labour ensures that not only is it difficult to find people to fill skilled positions, but also means that productivity levels are very poor, making investing in the economy less attractive than in those of our competitors. Real wages and the social wage need to be reconsidered to see whether conditions for attracting investment cannot be radically altered to attract the levels of investment required, and so that more people can get work. Currently the ruling party and its allies routinely skirt around this issue as the interests of organized labour and politicians are placed above those of the citizens, 14.3 Poor governance and a weak state at local, provincial and national level mean that services delivered are poor, waste is high, corruption is easy and the effect of paying taxes is to feel cheated by the government. Radical reform of local and provincial government is clearly essential. Resources and skills need to be redeployed to local level. Resources also need to be shifted radically from paying politicians to not delivering services and administrating poorly and all waste and corruption must be rooted out. The reforms to date of local government and the current system of national and provincial government has created a large class of civil servants whose interest is in preserving the current inefficient status quo with a bloated public sector and way too large government administration, 14.4 Weak old, poor and limited infrastructure in certain areas means that the cost of doing business is too high in certain instances. Investment has been made second priority to consumption expenditure and as a result many of our roads, sewers, electricity generation system and grid are in a shocking state. The cost of catching up in this regard is huge and the choices that need to be made in this regard are simply being fudged, 14.5 Limited capital for investment caused by low savings levels and by a banking system that favours the owners of banks and not the customers, 14.6 An educational system that reproduces a large pool of human resources, but which comprises people that cannot reach their true potential, except in exceptional cases. 15. What then is the way forward for the Congress of the People? If we remain as an independent party, we may well go the route of other similar initiatives such as the United Democratic Movement (UDM) and the Independent Democrats (ID) and slowly dwindle in numbers and relevance. Clearly, whether we are independent or in the ranks of the ANC or the DA is of little to no relevance to the people of our country, unless any of these arrangements implements a truly visionary program. To this end, COPE members must ensure that in the coming few weeks, the following tasks are undertaken; 15.1 A thorough assessment of the party and its performance must be made, with an emphasis on the performance of the party leadership, 15.2 Members must debate and prepare a policy agenda that promises radical change for the majority of South Africans and a future for all citizens, 15.3 The party must discuss coalitions, possible alliances and future scenarios, including what the bottom lines for these are, 15.4 Members must make choices on the future of the party. Either we go it alone, in which case radical renewal of the party is necessary, or we cooperate with and eventually even merge with the other political formations of the country. 16. Alternatively, we must shut up shop and admit the end of a significant but failed experiment in democracy. 17. If the decision is to rescue the party and re-launch and re-brand it, then the following must be undertaken with a vigour and purpose yet to be seen in the party; 17.1 A national conference must be held as a matter of urgency. This will mean resigning all members, compiling a credible database of members and involving members in the discussion about the future of the party, 17.2 The political life of the party must be changed and COPE must become a force for active participation and change in our country, 17.3 All allegations of corruption and excess; financial and in terms of lists need to be investigated and sanctions applied to those found guilty of any wrongdoing, 17.4 All councillors as well as MPs and MPLs must sign contracts to allow their work to be monitored and where they are found to have not performed they must be replaced, 17.5 The organisational and administrational capacity of the party must be restructured to ensure that it can function as a viable political entity.