What happened to Cope – from those who left

By Sipho Hlongwane 23 January 2012

What’s happening with Cope these days? Don’t worry – it’s a rhetorical question. We don’t care either. We asked two former Cope members, Onkgopotse JJ Tabane and Philip Dexter, how they felt about the ship they have both leapt from. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

Their response is the same: they both think it was a gigantic opportunity that was completely wasted.

We’ve covered Cope’s spectacular fall from grace before, and then sort of lost interest when it became very clear that nobody within the organisation was serious about getting it back on the straight and narrow.

The feud between Mbhazima Shilowa and Mosiuoa Lekota has completely destroyed what at one point looked like a serious political contender.

When we last had a look at Cope, it was just after the elective conference in 2010. Mbhazima Shilowa’s people had managed to insert themselves into the accreditation process for the conference, and had managed to disrupt the process so much that Lekota and his people threatened to boycott the whole thing. Realising that Shilowa had managed to get his own delegates in, and had kept out Lekota’s, the former ANC chairman then boycotted the conference, leaving the former premier of Gauteng to be elected alone to the position of Cope president.

Lekota then took the issue to court, where he eventually won. Shilowa can now legally no longer call himself the leader of the party, and is also no longer the party’s chief whip and accounting officer.

The matter seems to have not resolved itself yet. In August last year, the two leaders were still before the courts.

Recently, the offices of Cope in Johannesburg were raided by the sheriff of the court following a CCMA ruling against the party for the unfair dismissal of an employee. Goods to the value of R8,000 were attached, though the ruling required the sheriff to take away R82,500 worth of things, according to The Star. The unfortunate employee was sacked for being a Shilowa supporter, it was alleged.

And according to Cope secretary Lyndall Shope-Mafole this wasn’t the first time that someone had come knocking at their doors, demanding stuff to settle outstanding debts. “Lots of people who have been expelled have put us into a lot of debt before. One of the reasons we had to expel Mr Shilowa is that he put us in a lot of debt,” she said to The Star.

In the meantime, the infighting has drained the party of members. Some high-profile exits include Lynda Odendaal, Mlungisi Hlongwane, Alan Boesak, Onkgopotse JJ Tabane and Phillip Dexter.

Dexter quit Cope and rejoined the ANC, a move that raised a few eyebrows. He had served as Cope’s spokesman and penned some harsh press statements against the ruling party and the government.

Once he quit Cope, there was only one other party he could join, he wrote in his “letter of resignation”. “The ANC is the only organisation that can and does advance a program I can support. It is the organisation that leads the Alliance of those forces who represent the interests of the majority of South Africans, especially the workers, the poor, of women, of youth, of children, of senior citizens and those people who are disabled,” Dexter wrote. “In fact, the ANC represents the best interests of us all. With the 100th anniversary of the ANC upon us, I felt there was no better time to implement what I have believed in my own mind for a long time.”

Dexter explained in an interview with iMaverick that he had never attacked the ANC on its founding principles. “When you are a spokesperson, you speak for the party. This isn’t your own opinion,” he said. “But I never once attacked the values on which the ANC was founded. I challenge you to find one such statement.

“We believed that the ANC had deviated from these principles. We thought that we could start a party that would defend the Freedom Charter and the national democratic revolution. Unfortunately Cope descended into the same quagmire. But we never deviated from the vision of the Freedom Charter,” Dexter said.

Dexter now serves as an ordinary branch member of the ANC in Cape Town. He will step down as a Cope member of Parliament as soon as parliament opens again.

He said that the party had been a product of a particular historical moment, one which would probably never present itself again. “If you look at the history of the ANC, to parties like Sobukwe’s PAC and the UDM, it is quite clear that ANC break-aways don’t stand much chance of success. The Democratic Alliance exists as the only real opposition to the ANC, and the ideological battle is now between the ANC and the DA.”

JJ Tabane, whom at one time served as political adviser to Cope’s parliamentary leader, agreed that Cope has squandered a lot of goodwill. “Cope has spoilt it for anyone who wants to take on the establishment who has roots there,” he wrote in an email interview. “Our only hope is to strengthen the conversations in the tripartite alliance within the black community.” (Disclosure: JJ Tabane is an occasional columnist for iMaverick/Daily Maverick)

In his resignation letter, submitted to the Midrand branch of Cope, Tabane wrote, “We have witnessed the worst ‘power mongery’ in the organisation. A power play that has seen the failure of our organisation to conduct a decent exercise in democracy – that of electing a credible leadership with a mandate of the people. In the process the image of this organisation has suffered irreparable harm – harm that will take a miracle to restore.”

When we asked him whether he thought that Lekota had been the weak leader, he said, “He is a terrible leader. He has singularly messed up any chance that Cope ever had to succeed. He is a schemer who lacks vision. His time as a revolutionary has sadly lapsed.”

Both men said that the thought of joining the DA had never crossed their minds. Both said that the party was in opposition to the values of the Freedom Charter.

However, the DA and Cope tried to form an alliance in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro for the 2011 local government elections. Cope failed to gain the necessary votes to force the ANC out of power. The DA secured about 40% of the vote, with Cope only managing 5% – which guaranteed that the ANC got the required 51% to retain power. It was a prodigious drop in support for Cope, having won 17% in that metro for the 2009 national elections. DM

Read more:

  • Analysis: the slow-motion Cope car crash tumbles on. And on. And on in Daily Maverick.

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