ANC will now have to Cope

Prince Mashele

Prince Mashele

There is a truth that stares all of us in the face: 2009 will be defined by a fierce contest between the ANC and the Congress of the People.

When imagining the possible outcome of the forthcoming general elections, most South Africans ask: is Cope going to threaten the ANC's long-held majority in parliament? Understandably, the ANC will say "No!", while Cope will say "Yes!"

But why would the ANC confidently say "No"? It would say so bolstered by its record of overwhelmingly winning the previous three elections. During these elections, opposition parties participated with the knowledge that theirs was a contest for the smallest piece of the cake.

Two post-apartheid political dynamics seem to have been at play. The first is the political dexterity of the ANC in marginalising other black parties and successfully projecting itself as the principal force that liberated the people of South Africa.

The second is the centrality of race to post-apartheid politics. It did not matter how hard the DA tried to convince the majority of the electorate, the party could not shake off the perception of being a party of white men and women.

Thus, the ANC approached each election assured of a landslide victory. Opposition parties were, therefore, treated like innocuous adversaries. However loud Tony Leon screamed, Thabo Mbeki always referred to him as "some among us". It is against this background that most observers have been suggesting that a political threat to the ANC would only come from the party's own womb, a possibility Thabo Mbeki himself ironically predicted.

The vigour with which the ANC has reacted to Cope's formation is perhaps an acknowledgement of the seriousness with which it considers the challenge posed by Cope in the coming elections.

When Cope convenes a national convention in Sandton, the ANC organises a rally in Soweto. When Cope launches as a political party in Bloemfontein, the ANC celebrates military veterans at a stadium next-door, and the list goes on.

Those who have been following South African politics post-1994 will agree that the ANC had never reacted to an opposition party like this. It can, therefore, be concluded that the days of ignoring leaders of opposition parties as "some among us" are over. But is Cope going to threaten the ANC's long-held majority in parliament? The answer is very simple: all of us do not know, all we can do is speculate.

In his seminal book, What should the Left propose?, acclaimed Brazilian social theorist Roberto Unger reminds us: "Under democracy, prophesy speaks louder than memory." While we should be wary of those claiming to possess prophetic power, Unger reassures us of our correctness in pondering South Africa's possible futures.

In this regard, two historical developments are worth recalling: the formation of the United Democratic Movement and the birth of the Independent Democrats.

Bantu Holomisa was expelled from the ANC and went on to form his UDM, which secured 3,42 percent (14 seats) in the 1999 elections. Having left the Pan Africanist Congress, Patricia de Lille also formed her own party and contested the 2004 elections. Her ID secured 1,73 percent (7 seats) in the national assembly.

Upon establishment, neither the UDM nor the ID was able to do what Cope has done: attract a paid up membership of 428000 within two months. If only Cope members were to vote today, the party would already be assured of more than 3 percent (10 seats) in parliament.

It is worth noting that the UDM and the ID did not energise South Africans from all racial backgrounds in the manner in which Cope is doing. That prominent leaders of Cope have ANC liberation credentials is also a factor too important to ignore. This combination is indeed telling.

Cope seems likely to perform far better than the UDM and the ID when they first entered our political landscape. Cope's current membership base also suggests that it might overthrow the DA as an official opposition. The DA should not consider this prognosis with a sense of dismissive bravado.

Further, the internal leadership turbulence that has rocked the ANC's boat does not leave one with the impression of a ruling party that is likely to increase its majority in parliament.

Provinces such as Cape Eastern and Western Cape already seem slippery for the ANC. It is for this reason that cautious observers predict a 10 to 20 percent parliamentary slice for Cope.

What then are we likely to see after the 2009 election? On the basis of historical sentimentalism and loyalty to the ANC, victory seems certain for the organisation - although a two-thirds majority appears like a pipe dream. With the advent of Cope, we seem poised in the direction of a more strengthened position for opposition parties in parliament.

Should this scenario prevail, the ANC would have to adapt to a new form of parliamentary politics. In Let My People Go, Albert Luthuli cautions: "It is perhaps worth underlining here one of the great strengths of the ANC. It has displayed the power to adapt itself."

lMashele is Head of Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies. He writes in his personal capacity.