Cope: The need for leadership

5th November 2009 By: Denis Worrall

The Financial Mail in November last year had as a cover story "Can they crack it?". This was a reference to the anticipated establishment of a new political party - the Congress of the People (COPE) which was formed in November last year and launched on 16 December 2008. The Party therefore recently celebrated its first anniversary.

While observing that political commentators "are right to caution against over optimistic interpretations of COPE's political prospects", at the time I described its establishment as undoubtedly the most significant development in South African politics since 1994; and I welcomed it because in my view it weakened both the reality and the perception of the ANC's single-party dominance; secondly, this flexibility added to the budding multi-party character of the South African political system; and thirdly, it widened the area of debate and eventually of political choice.

As important as these things, COPE undoubtedly represented the views of many of the emergent black middle-class and certainly black professionals, who had increasingly become disenchanted with the ANC after the Polokwane conference and its dumping of President Thabo Mbeki. In fact, Omega was responsible for Sam Shilowa, its deputy leader and former premier of Gauteng, participating in one of our major conferences in London in January of this year. As we reported at the time, Shilowa made a very good impression.

However, since the election of 22 April this year, and with all the opportunities of parliamentary politics and a generally sympathetic media, COPE has failed to come alive. It could be expected to have adopted clear positions on certain major domestic issues. For example, corruption; the ANC's obsession with race; the government's failure to deliver services to the people; and a palpable degree of sheer incompetence in the administration of departments of state and state enterprises. As far as foreign policy is concerned COPE failed in respect to Zimbabwe. To the consternation and anger of many South Africans, the government has pussy-footed Robert Mugabe and his failure to implement the inclusive government arrangement which South Africa and the SADC pressured Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai into. As Allister Sparks, whom I quoted at the time, remarked: "If the South African government wanted instantly to change its international image it could do so in respect to Zimbabwe." However, it has been the Democratic Alliance which last week came out with a specific set of proposals regarding Zimbabwe. COPE, presumably goes along with this, but what an opportunity it missed at an early stage.

The general verdict of analysts and others at the week-end is that, in contrast to the Democratic Alliance (DA) which has been ably led by Helen Zille as Premier of the Western Cape, COPE simply hasn't struck independent positions and has remained in the shadows. The most recent development is the resignation last week of Simon Grindrod, a significant white person in politics, and this week of Dr Allan Boesak, the controversial cleric and prominent former member of the ANC, and COPE's leader in the Western Cape. Grindrod accused COPE of being "a mere lap dog shadowing the DA"; and his immediate eruption flowed from the fact that COPE held joint press conferences with the DA. Allan Boesak gave as his reason for resigning the fact that COPE was crippled by factionalism and a lack of leadership. And, indeed, he seems to have a point. Prior to the election of 22 April, COPE failed to sort out who was the leader - Shilowa or Mosiua Lekota, a former ANC cabinet minister - and instead chose a prominent churchman but non-politician, Bishop Nvume Dandala, to lead the Party into the election. This really didn't inspire confidence and the Party did not do as well as it expected.

Aside from the negative psychological impact of something like this, no political party can afford to lose people of this stature. The Cape Argus yesterday in an editorial spoke of COPE as "imploding". Business Day in an editorial took a less pessimistic view. While expressing deep disappointment at COPE's perceived failure, it went on to say that not all is lost. What COPE needs to immediately do is elect a leader - something which it has up to now avoided doing.

Dr Denis Worrall
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