South African politics is "hotting up," as they say down this way. Earlier this month a new party, formed by disaffected members of the ruling African National Congress, was launched in Bloemfontein, ironically, the very city where the ANC was born in 1912. But the brash, new political kid on the block, known as the Congress of the People (COPE), says the ANC has forgotten where it came from and has abandoned its founding principles. So COPE brought some 4,000 delegates from around the country to the ANC's birthplace and former ANC leader and celebrated anti-apartheid activist Allan Boesak proclaimed that he was joining the new party because: "There has never been a time like this." The response was resounding agreement.
Boesak has arisen from the political dead, a fate that befell him after he was convicted and served time for fraud. But the president who is no longer president, Thabo Mbeki, pardoned him, and for the past few years, he has been laboring in the wilderness of the Western Cape. But as he made his way into the entrance hall on the final day of the COPE convention, the enthusiastic crowd began chanting his name. He then went through the litany of challenges he and other anti-apartheid activists confronted during the fight against the vicious excesses of the apartheid regime and acknowledged that the triumphs were great, or exhilarating or wonderful, but then he concluded: "But there's never been a time like this." And in time, in the old style of struggle rallies, when Boesak would complete a thought that the crowd had already anticipated, they would join in when he would shout: "There's never been…"
Then they would respond: "A time like this!"
And it was this speech and that theme that captured the moment. In tones that rang to the rafters, the Dutch Reform Church cleric recounted the many defining moments of the South African struggle to which he had borne witness—many of them challenging and wonderful, but he went on:
"I was there after Sharpeville, when they have killed our people on the streets, the liberation movements have been driven underground, some into exile, some banned, some into prison and then we said: 'We refuse to accept this as a defeat and we will withdraw and strengthen ourselves and we will come back but apartheid shall not last forever.' And those were wonderful times, but there has never been a time like this."
To be sure, there are other parties, and there have been other breakaways from the ANC, but none that made as huge an impact as COPE. Within three months, the party has amassed what COPE officials claim is a paid membership of more than 400,000, only 200,000 less than the ANC, which has been organizing since the end of apartheid in 1994.
So, one could ask, does this new party have a chance of breaking the ANC stronghold on the political landscape and maybe even winning next year's elections? Well, that old saw about "only time will tell" is one response. COPE, for its part, insisted throughout its three-day convention that it will, in fact, win next year's elections. Others—analysts and senior journalists—while impressed with its gains so far, think the time frame is too short between now and whenever the next election is scheduled—probably sometime early in 2009—for the new party to gain enough traction to win. But that group also believes COPE could become the official opposition.
COPE has yet to flesh out the stark contrasts that will distinguish it from the ANC, which allows for ongoing speculation that the real reason its leaders and others left because of the unseemly way in which the ruling party forced Mbeki to resign with only six months to go in his term. (The drama behind that is too much to detail in this space.) But COPE has begun to put flesh on the bones of what it hopes will be a distinguishing profile beyond "piss- off." And, indeed, many of the delegates attending the conference said they had never participated in politics before. And in a sentiment reminiscent of the Obama campaign, many said this new party seemed to offer something different—change; not everyone could articulate what that meant, except to note that it went a long way in the US of A! Among the "change" COPE has so far demanded, in contrast to the ANC, is the call for direct elections of the president, premiers (the U.S. equivalent of governors) and mayors (currently appointed by the ruling party) and also for creating a party, in the words of one of its leaders, that truly looks like a rainbow. That is part of the reason COPE leaders often spoke in Afrikaans during their convention; talked continually about inclusiveness and chose as one of two deputies a white businesswoman.(Other reasons were also given, like her having the IT expertise lacking in the newly elected president of COPE, Mosiuoa Lekota.)
Lekota is a former minister of defense in the ANC government, a Robben Island prisoner with Nelson Mandela and, really back in the day, a soccer star who earned the nickname "Terror" for his prowess on the field. White delegates I talked with welcomed the change, and so did an Afrikaner farmer who showed up without having registered, but insisted on being able to pay his dues on the spot. He wasn't turned down.
Both sides are now preaching respect of the constitution. One of the reasons COPE leaders initially gave for their disenchantment was what they saw as the ANC violations of that letter and spirit of the constitution; most especially in the behavior of supporters of ANC president Jacob Zuma, who were threatening to "kill" if Zuma were convicted of pending charges of bribery and corruption.
For many, the notion of a strong opposition to the ANC, which currently enjoys a two-thirds majority, is a healthy development in this young democracy. Already, it seems to be affecting the political dialogue. At a rally attended by thousands in the same region where the COPE convention was held, Zuma acknowledged that the ANC had made mistakes in the past, but in a clear reference to much of the new COPE leadership who had been an integral part of that past, he added: "All those who led South Africa for the past 15 years must take collective responsibility for the good and the bad. Without forgetting our past, we have to move into the future." And on the other side of town, Lekota agreed.
And that leads to the issue of the elephant in the room—political violence.
How will both parties move into the future, avoiding some of the excesses of both the recent and the distant past? In the run-up to the 1994 election, black-on-black violence claimed hundreds of lives, especially in the Zulu area of Kwa-Zulu-Natal, Zuma's home province. And then, it was Zuma who helped quell it. For the moment, the leadership of both parties and the president of the country have called for tolerance. But there is reason to worry about the ability of both sides to control their supporters.
At the convention, COPE delegates began chanting at one point: "i-Cope ayina shower." (COPE has no shower, making a hand gesture over their heads mimicking a shower head). The intended taunt of Zuma was inspired by his statements at his rape trial that he protected himself from having an HIV infection by taking a shower after sex with an HIV-positive woman. Those delegates were gently reprimanded and reminded by COPE leaders of COPE's pledge to keep to the high road. At the same time, ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, earlier known for his threats to "kill" if Zuma were convicted, was saying things like "Down with sell-outs," while other ANC leaders attacked some members of the judiciary as "counterrevolutionaries."
It remains to be seen what Zuma had in mind when he exhorted veterans of the ANC's former military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, to defend the ANC and the constitution: "We call on all combatants to defend the ANC and the constitution from those who seek to confuse people." There was a collective national sigh of relief when everything ended peacefully. And at the moment, as in every December about this time, South Africa has all but shut down for the holidays. But come January, the political arena will "hot up" again for sure, so stay tuned.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a Johannesburg-based journalist and author of "New News Out of Africa: Uncovering the African Renaissance."