South Africans vote in just a few weeks in what many
observers say is the most important poll since it freed itself from white
minority rule in 1994. The leading presidential candidate at this stage is African
National Congress leader Jacob Zuma, despite various corruption allegations
against him. But a new challenge has emerged to ANC dominance of South African
politics. The Congress of the People (COPE) consists of former ruling party
members dissatisfied with the ANC's governance of South Africa.
The country's previous
elections, in 2004, saw the ruling party win a massive 70 percent of the vote,
and the ANC is confident it will again sweep the polls. It has repeatedly
dismissed COPE as a serious challenge to its power, saying the new kid on the
block in South African politics doesn't have a high enough public profile to
lure voters away from the ANC – especially with a relatively unknown cleric,
Mvume Dandala, as its candidate for president.
But, in an interview with VOA
at his office in a Johannesburg suburb, COPE policy chief Smuts Ngonyama said
the party chose Dandala as the face of its campaign precisely because the
former Methodist bishop was not an experienced politician, but rather a "moral
leader" who would give his compatriots "hope" and "moral direction."
A reconnection with 'morality'
Ngonyama maintained that
Dandala is a man of "strong values, just like (previous South African
presidents) Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki." Ngonyama headed up Mbeki's office
before Mbeki was effectively dismissed by the ANC last year after a judge
suggested that the former president had instigated criminal investigations into
his rival, Jacob Zuma.
In choosing Dandala ahead of
well-known former high-ranking ANC members and COPE founders Mosiua Lekota and
Mbhazima Shilowa, said Ngonyama, COPE was attempting to "reconnect with the legacy"
of Mandela and Mbeki.
Ngonyama emphasized that COPE
was dedicated to preventing a "collapsing of the values of our society." COPE,
as well as other opposition parties, allege that the ANC is inherently corrupt
– a charge the ruling party vehemently denies.
COPE's policy chief said Dandala
had proven that he had "excellent leadership skills" when the reverend was at
the helm of the South African Council of Churches and the country's Methodist
Church. In addition, said Ngonyama, Dandala was a "noted anti-apartheid
activist" who had "sacrificed a lot" for the freedom of all South Africans.
"Mvume Dandala knows what
South Africans need. So if we are being criticized for not taking someone that
is well known (to lead COPE), we are prepared to take that risk, because we
know the kind of man he is," Ngonyama told VOA.
He said Dandala would
"reintroduce tolerance" into South African society.
In the run-up to the
elections, COPE has accused ANC supporters of "intolerance," with several
instances of ANC supporters invading COPE meetings and attacking party agents.
"It raises a very serious
question about South Africa's democracy under the leadership of the ANC," said
Ngonyama. "(It says) that the ANC has got no regard, no respect for the freedom
of association which is enshrined in the constitution; in fact they have no
respect even for the constitution of South Africa. Of course, many people (who
oppose the ANC) would fear for their lives."
The ANC says its supporters,
too, have been victims of political violence but Ngonyama said he wasn't aware
of a single incident of COPE supporters being involved in attacking opponents.
COPE to weaken the opposition?
When COPE emerged last year,
many observers saw in it the first stirrings of true opposition to the
all-powerful ANC. Yet since then, this optimism has faded, and there's now the concern
that COPE may split the opposition vote in the upcoming elections, thereby
strengthening the ANC's hold on the institutions of power in South Africa.
Ngonyama insisted, however,
that COPE will strengthen opposition to the ruling party and prevent the ANC
from gaining a two-thirds majority in parliament, which he said would allow the
ANC to shield its members – most notably, Zuma – from criminal prosecution.
Ngonyama pointed out that the
Democratic Alliance, the biggest opposition party in South Africa with 12
percent of the vote secured in the previous elections, had failed to pose a
significant threat to the ANC (anywhere) other than in the Western Cape
province, where the DA controls the provincial government.
However, said Ngonyama, had within
the space of a few months COPE become the focus of all other parties in South
Africa, who were constantly attacking it "because they can see – especially
within the ANC – that here is an organization that definitely is going to be a
threat…because it's coming up with a new agenda for change. It's an
organization which does not look at the color of skin of an individual; it's a
truly non-racial organization which is building a common national identity, and
it's a home for all South Africans. That's why it's a threat to the ANC."
Ngonyama did concede though
that COPE would "worry" other opposition parties who had previously "enjoyed
"It s part of the game," he smiled.
'We don't have the money….'
With just mere weeks to go
before the voting, there are few signs on the streets of South Africa that COPE
is indeed involved in the elections. Few COPE posters, for example, adorn
lampposts – in stark contrast to other political parties, whose leaders can be
seen beaming down from positions on just about every corner of major city
Ngonyama agreed that COPE has
so far not made use of the "paraphernalia" associated with an election
In addition, one of COPE's
most high-profile members, former ANC stalwart and prominent businessman Saki
Macozoma, has revealed that Cope is suffering from a lack of funding.
Ngonyama acknowledged that the
"reality of the matter" was that COPE did not have the necessary finances to
enable it to fight an effective election.
"We are not going to use
funds that are stolen…. (or) ill-begotten; we'll use clean funds," he stressed,
maintaining that COPE is not concerned with the fact that it "is not as rich"
as other parties.
He explained that the party
spoke to the "heart of the people. We believe that you can have as many
posturing people sitting on the posters smiling…. But what matters most is what
is in the hearts and minds of South Africans and what is it that they want.
They know for a fact that the COPE brand is a brand for the future, and that is
the hope of the people of South Africa."