South Africa's newest political party, the Congress of the People (COPE) insists it will offer a serious challenge to the ruling African National Congress in elections in a few weeks (April 22). At this stage, though, it's the ANC's controversial leader, Jacob Zuma, who looks likely to become the next president of Africa's largest economy. COPE consists of former ANC members unhappy with Zuma's leadership of the ruling party. COPE initially said it was targeting 51 percent of the vote, but independent surveys say it stands to receive only between six and 10 percent.

"Simply put," says COPE's chief of policy, Smuts Ngonyama, "the surveys are wrong. We are going to receive far more than six percent?. We are going to surprise a lot of people."

He acknowledged that COPE faces a "very big challenge" to prevent the ANC, which got 70 percent of votes cast in the 2004 elections, from gaining a two-thirds majority in parliament.

"But we believe that South Africans are the?. doctors of the situation in our country. They are the ones who are going to punish those who seek to undermine our democracy," Ngonyama said.

Ngonyama is the former head of former president Thabo Mbeki's office and a close friend. Last year the ANC effectively dismissed Mbeki after a judge suggested that the former president had instigated corruption investigations into Zuma.

Ngonyama asserted that democracy in South Africa could "collapse" if the ANC is afforded another term in office. Voters, he maintained, would choose COPE because of the "guts" of the party's officials who had been "brave" enough to leave the ANC and to "tell the public what is wrong with the ANC, and that we don't want this country to be another Zimbabwe?."

Top COPE member a convicted fraudster

One of COPE's main allegations against the ANC is that the ruling party has become inherently corrupt. Zuma, in particular, is alleged to have received bribes from a French weapons firm in exchange for favors with regard to an arms deal, and there are a slew of other graft allegations against top ANC members that opposition parties say aren't being investigated.

However, one of COPE's leading members is himself a convicted fraudster.

In 1999, the anti-apartheid cleric Allan Boesak, who at the time was chairman of the Western Cape branch of the ANC, was convicted of misappropriating thousands of dollars of donor funds meant for development in his province.

He was imprisoned in 2000, but released after having served just over a year of his three-year sentence. In 2005, then president Mbeki issued a full presidential pardon to Boesak, whose criminal record was duly expunged from the record.

Ngonyama said, "With regards to the funds that [Boesak] (corruptly) received, those funds were used for the struggle (against apartheid)."

Ngonyama did, however, acknowledge that Boesak had not been able to "account in detail" for his use of the donor funds and that he had thus been found guilty of fraud.

"But the most important thing is that he was pardoned; those criminal charges were expunged and those charges are no more on him," Ngonyama added, saying, "That's why we decided to use him; the law allows us to do that."

Ngonyama further argued that the corruption case against Zuma was "different" and "more serious" than that of Boesak, because a judge had jailed the ANC leader's former financial advisor for making corrupt payments to Zuma ? thus directly implicating the likely future president of South Africa in graft.

"On top of it all," said the COPE official, "the ANC has gone out of its way to ensure that Jacob Zuma is never tried in a court of law, unlike Boesak, who has been jailed and now deserves a second chance."

Ngonyama stressed that although the charges against Zuma had been dismissed, it would make Zuma and the ANC much, much bigger in the eyes of the public if he stood down and allowed someone else to run for president" because the "dark cloud hovering over" Zuma was damaging the integrity of the country.

Nelson Mandela 'abused' and 'humiliated'

According to some analysts, COPE's hopes of causing an upset at the forthcoming polls were severely damaged when former president Nelson Mandela recently appeared at a public rally in the Eastern Cape Province alongside Zuma. They see this as Mandela's endorsement of Zuma, and a significant boost to the ANC leader's campaign.

COPE members, as well as many South Africans, were deeply concerned when ANC officials arrived at the elderly Mandela's home, led him to a helicopter and flew him to appear alongside Zuma at the political gathering.

Mandela had made it clear that he had retired from politics and his foundation, which controls his public affairs, had said beforehand that Mandela was too frail to attend public functions.

A hobbling Mandela had to be helped on to the podium to be embraced by a beaming Zuma.

Ngonyama described Mandela's "forced" appearance at the ANC rally as an "act of desperation" by the ruling party and its candidate.

"(Former president) Mbeki never went out of his way to go and fetch (former) president Mandela during elections (to boost his campaign). He fought elections by himself," Ngomyama declared.

He said the sight of a "very, very ill" Mandela "almost being carried" to appear at Zuma's side had left most South Africans, who revered the former president, "outraged."

"That's really abuse! Our position as COPE is that South Africans need to protect Mandela from the ANC!" Ngonyama exclaimed. "He's our father, he's our leader, he's our icon," he stated. "It was real humiliation of Nelson Mandela, at a time that he was supposed to be relaxing."

The ANC, in "dragging" Mandela to the event to appear with Zuma, had shown that it was "desperate" and "unable to face the South African public" without the help of Mandela's iconic image, Ngonyama said.

The ANC maintains that Mandela chose to be at the rally; Mandela himself has remained silent about the controversy.