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COPE claims Moral High-Ground as South African Elections Loom

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 comfort zones."

"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 streets.

Ngonyama agreed that COPE has so far not made use of the "paraphernalia" associated with an election campaign.

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."