The African National Congress has led South Africa since 1994 - the start of majority rule. Disaffection with Jacob Zuma’s recall of Thabo Mbeki has set an unwanted ball in motion - a potential split of the party before the next election.

I have written about the ANC before - about Leadership in Africa, the election process, the rise of Zuma, and the election at Polokwane,

While it is not a one-party state, the ANC dominates the political landscape, with over the 2/3rds majority needed to change the constitution. It has never had a serious challenger since attaining power. This, and the party list system, which has the unintended consequence of people chasing hierarchy in the party over winning seats, means that the ANC in power has been accused of remoteness from the electorate and autocratic behaviour.

Party List

In South Africa, each political party contending for seats in parliament at election time has to submit a Party list. The Independent Electoral Commission decides how many seats will be allocated to each party, and picks that number of candidates from the top of each list.

While this may be admirably fair on the division of seats, the downside is that party favour may put fat cats high on the list, and Parliament has members in favour with the party leadership, not those in the people’s favour. In Kenya and Zimbabwe, for example, many MPs have lost their seats because their local constituency felt they were poorly represented. In contrast, people like South Africa’s Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang survived multiple elections without having to pass the litmus test of constituency support.

There are some I have talked to that go so far as to say that the party list encourages ambitious party members to support those higher up the hierarchy (to gain favour) rather than rank and file (the electorate). I am inclined to agree.

Thabo Mbeki’s recall

In September 2008, Jacob Zuma (as president of the ANC party) ‘recalled’ Thabo Mbeki, the country’s president. It was his last term anyway, and ANC infighting since the Polokwane conference meant that the National Executive Committee, the highest structure of the party, decided to replace Thabo Mbeki with Kgalema Motlanthe. The stated reason was a judgement handed down by judge Chris Nicholson who implicitly accused Mbeki and some of his ministers of interfering in the prosecution of Jacob Zuma. Doing this seven months before the next elections appears to have been an unwise move. It means that disaffected party members have seven months to organise a breakaway party from the ANC.

Mosiuoa Lekota

Mosiuoa ‘Terror’ Lekota has stepped into the breach. Thabo Mbeki has been at the helm too long, and fresh blood was needed. Lekota was minister of defence in Mbeki’s cabinet from 1999 until 2008. He wrote an open letter to the ANC, detailing his grievances.

  • Those who express views that are contrary to popular opinion in meetings and conferences of the organisation are later hounded out and purged from organisation and state structures.
  • Sectoral and individual interests other than those flowing from the people’s interests expressed in the Freedom Charter are elevated to levels of national priority.
  • our leaders issue threats that if judicial proceedings do not result in outcomes they prefer, the country will be brought to a standstill.
  • The leadership called for a political solution in the matter of the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions vs the President of the ANC.
  • Blatant threats to kill for certain individuals if desires other than their own are not satisfied are made with impunity.

Lekota ended his letter, tellingly, with the following paragraph :-

I appeal to you to reply to my concerns in an open and frank manner so that everyone can be assured that the deduction that I and many other comrades have made, that the organisation is no longer pursuing the original policies of the ANC, is correct.

The ANC replied, but hardly addressed any of his concerns, merely admonishing him and accusing him of disrespect. They even quoted the last paragraph, paradoxically confirming Lekota’s points.

Party formation

The party is being formed after a rally on 16th December. Western Cape MPs are threatening to resign, and the print media is all over this story. So much so, that the ANC has accused the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) of bias, and has threatened to replace the entire SABC board.

Prospects for the new party

The new party, headed by Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa, has benefited from the ANC’s discomfiture - their name is brandished at ANC meetings as the sellouts, the losers, etc., but there is no such thing as bad publicity for COPE. The ANC disputes their use of the name, saying that is apart of ANC history, and is challenging it in court - handing COPE yet more free publicity.

Jesus returns

The truth is that the ANC, recently dubbed by its new president Jacob Zuma, as the party that would lead South Africa ‘until Jesus returns’, is rattled by COPE’s emergence. They have the potential to make big inroads into their established power base, since many of the new party are seasoned ANC cadres who either do not like Zuma himself, or are angry at the perceived railroading of the election process that elected him, or feel sidelined by the new leadership and see more opportunity in the new party.

Thabo Mbeki

Thabo Mbeki, who has studiously avoided taking sides in the argument, to the extent of writing a letter to the ANC NEC asking that his name not be used in their campaign, has also written a strong letter to Jacob Zuma accusing him of a ‘cult of personality’ which is in direct opposition to the traditions of the ANC since its foundation.

Consequences for the South African political environment

The 2009 elections are fast approaching. A date has not been set, but it is widely expected to be around April 2009. The ANC process of branches recommending people for the party list is slow and cumbersome, and cannot be speeded up to short-circuit COPEs plans for the elections, so they will be a force in the elections. However, will the difference between the two parties be just the name ? Same manifesto, same dislike for each other ? Lekota claims to be going back to the roots of the ANCs Freedom Charter - how can the ANC do otherwise ?


So, perhaps the differences will not be in the manifesto, but in the willingness of the electorate to believe in their promises. The ANC has the disadvantage of history - COPE has the advantage of being new. Both of these could be construed the other way. However, there is a clearly perceived change of course since Polokwane, and from the white presses perspective, it has been an uncomfortable jerk to the left. The battlefields are in the Eastern Cape, Mbeki’s home territory, where many ANC officials have already defected to COPE, and in the Western Cape, where Allan Boesak,former chairman of the Western Cape branch of the ANC, has also joined COPE.

They may split hairs over policy, but one thing that definitely identifies COPE - opposition to Jacob Zuma. All would do well to read Helen Zille’s Reconciliation day message, which says :-

“We must always remember that there is more that binds us together than that which pushes us apart. “Let us never forget: we are one nation with one future.”