Should the ANC be worried?
There was jubilation, defiance and a sense of history in the making in this farming community this week when some 4,000 South Africans gathered to lay the groundwork for what may be a seismic shift in the political landscape.
It is too early to say whether the birth of the Congress of the People will be the political equivalent of an earthquake or a minor tremor. But there is no denying that the new political party caught the nation’s attention with the inaugural conference in Bloemfontein.
Delegates sang anti-apartheid anthems, danced and denounced the ruling African National Congress. Many had recently defected from the ANC, which has ruled since the end of apartheid in 1994. Some admitted they had fallen out of favour with the party after new leader Jacob Zuma took over a year ago.
The COPE faithful speak of a need to save the country from Zuma, who is the frontrunner to become the country’s next president after the general election in 2009. They believe he will reverse the gains made under Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, ousted as president by the ANC in September.
“We cannot allow a man like Zuma to take power. This would be a disaster for our country,” Joseph Mabunda, a COPE supporter from Bloemfontein said on Tuesday after the new party named its leadership team and outlined its programme for the 2009 election.
COPE’s leader is former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota. Many South Africans refer to him as “Terror,” a nickname picked up on the soccer pitch decades ago. It is said he was an accomplished though aggressive player, and his supporters believe he can rekindle that magic against Zuma.
COPE supporters were buoyed by recent by-election victories – their candidates took slightly less than a third of the seats in contention. On Tuesday, delegates carried a mock ANC coffin outside the conference hall.
But the ANC is fighting back and remains very confident.
The ruling party, unlike its new rival, can count on a formidable political machine and healthy campaign coffers.
“You can hang that in a museum next year” says an ANC supporter, pointing at the COPE media credential badge hanging around my neck. “Nobody will beat us.”
What do you think of COPE’s chances?