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Dandala Resignation: Will Cope Survive Next Year’s Elections?

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It is less than two years since the Congress of the People (COPE) was launched in October 2008. The divisive leadership battle between founding members Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa has raised questions about the party's ability to survive to the next general elections in 2014. The resignation of party parliamentary leader Mvume Dandala this Saturday has made it even more compelling to ask, will COPE survive until next year's local government elections?


COPE burst onto the South African political scene promising to repair the South African economy by boosting local production, to create jobs, address HIV/AIDS and to redefine Affirmative Action such that it benefits all South Africans. It is safe to argue that COPE's noble agenda has been diverted by the fact that the party has spent much of its young life focused on the leadership battle between party president Lekota and deputy president Shilowa.

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Speculation over the tension in the ‘Shikota' union was confirmed in April 2010 when Lekota publically accused Shilowa of the mismanagement of COPE funds received from parliament. Going into the national congress on 29 May, Shilowa had already publically revealed his intention to challenge Lekota's position as president. Despite an admission by Lekota of an ‘error' by accusing Shilowa of fraud, the national congress would signal the climax of the ‘Shikota' divorce proceedings.

At the national congress, which according to the Lekota faction, was a policy meeting and not an electoral meeting, Lekota and party head of communications, Phillip Dexter received votes of no confidence from Shilowa-aligned COPE delegates, officially expelling them from the party. Lekota and Dexter had, just before the congress, obtained court interdicts to prevent the elections from taking place. The interdicts were ‘overturned' by party delegates, and Lekota and Dexter responded by marching out of the congress.

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The Johannesburg High Court reinstated Lekota as party president on 6 June after he launched an appeal alleging his expulsion as illegal. On the other side of this unfolding drama, an application for appeal by Shilowa's lawyers was referred to the Supreme Court of Appeal by Judge Rami Mathopo.


According to the Sunday Times, Dandala's resignation might finally give Lekota the opportunity to lead the party in parliament thereby assuming a senior position to his archrival Shilowa who is currently the party's chief whip.


Dandala's resignation comes months after COPE's second deputy president Lynda Odendaal resigned last July and returned to the ANC last February. From the start, Dandala who is the former head of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, was an odd choice. COPE claimed that Dandala's selection was a realisation of the urgent need to provide a clean start to governance in South Africa. Claims by the media that Dandala's departure was due to his embarrassment over the spat between Shilowa and Lekota can be taken as a warning of the extent to which the party needs to ‘clean up' as it looks forward to next year's local government elections.

Will COPE be able to hold on to the 1.3 million voters that voted them into parliament in the 2009 elections? Or, has the party in-fighting given effect to Jacob Zuma's prediction that COPE would have a short life span and that COPE supporters would likely find themselves "stranded... cold and in the snow, and then say, I better go back home"? Do Lekota and Shilowa hold enough individual pulling power such that both of their supporters will not "go back home" to the ANC?


In Electoral Politics in South Africa: Assessing the First Democratic Decade Professor Steven Friedman had correctly predicted after the 2004 elections that the only opposition party that would have a chance, beyond the racialised opposition that defines the Democratic Alliance, would have to come from within the ANC itself. It would seem, however, that ANC credentials are not enough to make COPE the formidable opposition required to take on the ANC. If anything, the tensions between Lekota and Shilowa leave little left of COPE's objective of bringing in a new style of leadership, where leaders are directly elected and directly removed from official positions by the public. The 2011 local government elections will starkly demonstrate the extent to which the tensions within the party have blurred the party's mandate to the electorate.


Written by: Siphokazi Magadla, Intern, Security Sector Governance Programme

 

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