South Africa

Analysis: Cope’s short journey to irrelevance

By Rebecca Davis 5 December 2013

Cope’s announcement on Thursday that they would be merging with another party was greeted with excited anticipation by – well, very few people probably. As it turned out, the big reveal was barely worth sending out a press release for: beleaguered Cope will be merging with the National Republican Party. Who? A religious conservative group with barely any web presence, calling for “Godly governance”, who will surely rake them in only a handful of votes. What on earth is the point? By REBECCA DAVIS.

If you were one of the 1, 311 027 people who voted for Cope in the last elections, are you planning to put your X in the same box come 2014? The long, tedious and very public leadership battle between Mbhazima Shilowa and Mosiuoa Lekota has done nothing to build confidence in a party which has seemed at points little more than an ego-playground for the two men. Lekota has emerged on top, but in the interim the party has lost high-profile figures like Philip Dexter and Nosimo Balindlela to the ANC and the DA. In early November, KZN Cope leader Phillip Mhlongo defected to the EFF.

In parliament, Lekota remains a visible and outspoken figure, winning admiration for his fearless verbal attacks on the ruling party but also attracting the frustration of others for his occasional seeming amnesia about his own activities in his own former life as Defence Minister. This was particularly the case in April, when Lekota was fulminating about South Africa’s military activities in a country (CAR) with whom he personally had signed the initial memorandum of understanding. Under Lekota’s stewardship Cope has increasingly come to seem like a one-personality party, much like Agang. How many South Africans could name even two Cope MPs other than Lekota?

As has been noted before, in the cramped opposition space there appears very little ideological difference between the DA, Agang and Cope, who will be fighting each other for votes in 2014, unless further mergers take place. Over the past two years, when the words “Cope” and “merger” have been heard, it has been the DA mooted as a partner. A DA event in August last year featured Lekota and Helen Zille cozily sharing a couch for an “interactive chat”, during which the extent of common ground between the two was apparent in a shared focus on non-racialism and the upholding of Constitutional values.

After the event, DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko told the Daily Maverick that she couldn’t predict what would happen between the two parties, but that “it would be fair to call it a courtship”.

There hasn’t been much evidence of progress in that direction since then. When Cope announced its mystery merger with an “influential political party” this week, it was always clear it wasn’t going to be with the DA: no ways would the DA allow Cope to take the spotlight of such an event and stage-manage its announcement alone. But it was a shattering anti-climax when Lekota announced, at a press briefing at Cope’s Johannesburg offices on Thursday, that the merger would be with the National Republican Party.

The response on social media was overwhelmingly: Who? Some queried if the NRP had links to the old Apartheid-era political organisation the National Republic Party, led by Vause Raw – apparently nicknamed Raw Wors. (It does not.) Good luck Googling it – one of the most prominent hits is to an article which states that politician Tielman Roos proposed in 1919 to change the National Party’s name to the National Republican Party.

To call the NRP “influential” is not just exaggeration but borders on a flat-out lie. The group reportedly has a membership not exceeding 1800. Even taking into account the old truism that “every vote counts”, it’s really hard to see what’s in this for Cope. On Facebook, the NRP has a grand total of – wait for it – 25 likes.

The party is run by a 38 year-old Springs pastor called Tebogo Rakgabyane. If there was an obvious political fit for the NRP, it would be with the deeply religious African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), the only party to vote against the Constitution on the grounds that it enshrined the right to abortion. Both appear to share the conviction that the ultimate law of the land should not be the Constitution, but the Bible.

On Facebook, the NRP self-describes as “the party that strives for Godly-Governance in South Africa”. On the 10th of November they put out an appeal for South Africans to register to vote – but only to “all believers (Christians) in SA”. Foreshadowing the merger, on October 18th a Facebook status pleaded: “Lord God, Heavenly Father, Lord Jesus, Lord Holy Spirit, this morning I PRAY for the Congress of the People (COPE), and its Leadership, led by Cde. Ntate Lekota, whom you saw fit that he be the General Overseer of COPE. You called & ordained him for this very purpose, and for such a time as this, that through him you may show your glorious power from above.”

You hear that, Mbhazima Shilowa? Lekota’s right to the leadership of Cope was ordained by God himself. You never stood a chance.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with politicians holding religious beliefs, as long as they adhere to one of the founding precepts of a liberal constitutional democracy: the separation of church and state. But the real issue with Cope’s choice of bedfellow is that they hold views on issues like gay rights and abortion which seem to a smaller or greater degree opposed to Cope’s. Cope states in their policy documents that the party supports a society where discrimination based upon sexual orientation is condemned.

In an interview with News24 in 2009, Cope’s presidential candidate Mvume Dandala – himself a former head of the Methodist Church – sought to reassure South African homosexuals: “The priority is the Constitution of the country for any minority and this is what we as Cope would seek to protect,” Dandala said.

Cope’s position on abortion has always been less clear. But a recent article on FeministsSA, which analysed the party’s position on women’s rights, stated: “Though we can’t reflect on their positions in terms of important women’s rights legislation like the Termination of Pregnancy Bill (as it preceded their incorporation), it is worth noting that their National Organiser, Mluleki George, voted in favour of the Bill while an ANC MP.”

At Thursday’s launch, NRP leader Rakgabyane stated his belief that churches should play a stronger role in politics, and said that government policies could play a role in “protecting unborn babies who are murdered through abortion”.

According to the Sowetan, Lekota was quick to state that the merger did not mean that Cope and the NRP shared the same views on abortion and same-sex relationships, and said that Cope policies remained the same. “Issues will be debated, we can’t agree on everything right from the beginning,” he said.

If Lekota acknowledges that there are some substantial ideological sticking-points between the two groups, it begs the question yet more intensely: what on earth is the point of this for Cope? Did Lekota lose a bet? Does he owe someone a favour? Is he being blackmailed? Attempts by the Daily Maverick to get an answer to these vital queries from Cope came to naught on Thursday.

If people want to cast their vote based on fundamentalist Christian principles in South Africa, it’s surely most likely they will vote for the well-established ACDP. Cope’s new merger may have won them 1800 NRP members, but it’s also likely to lose them much of a residual respect from former voters, who prefer to vote for parties which display an unambiguous commitment to the upholding of rights for women and gay people which are already enshrined in our Constitution. DM

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Photo: Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa Lekota holds a news conference in Johannesburg on Wednesday, 24 October 2012 where he spoke about impeachment proceedings against President Jacob Zuma. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

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