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Minnows on a tightrope: Cope is no-hope for SA democracy 

Minnows on a tightrope: Cope is no-hope for SA democracy 
Cope supporters outside the Western Cape Division of the High Court of South Africa in Cape Town. (Photo: Gallo Images / Nardus Engelbrecht)

The Congress of the People is on its last legs, and may not survive next year’s elections. It’s very likely that its disintegration, which has already had a destabilising impact on at least two metros, will continue. This possible end of Cope is a cautionary tale for other parties – especially those with no clear leadership.

All the available evidence points to Cope being about to shuffle off our parliamentary stage. The party has only two seats in the National Assembly. It has no distinct political identity, and it appears to make no substantive contribution to our national debate.

This is not to say the party is silent. Its spokesperson, Dennis Bloem, is often one of the first to speak on any issue, but this should not be confused with any significant contribution.

Mosiuoa Lekota, the only leader Cope has ever had, is … virtually silent. According to at least one faction in the party, he has been suspended.

In both Joburg and Tshwane, Cope has only one seat. Despite this, the person holding the one seat has been able to make a huge impact in both metros.

In Joburg last year, it was Cope’s sole councillor Colleen Makhubele who was elected Speaker in September. She joined the Patriotic Alliance in leaving the coalition that had supported a DA speaker. She was able to then use that position to schedule votes to remove the DA’s mayor, Mpho Phalatse.

It was not clear at the time whether she had consulted with her party’s leadership. Cope was still in a formal coalition with the DA, Action SA and other parties.

Makhubele herself said that she only spoke to Lekota after being elected to the position. In other words, it appears she did not have the blessing of her party’s leadership before deciding to desert a coalition Cope had been part of. At one point, a structure of the party claimed Makhubele had been suspended for her actions.

It was also not clear who she would consult. It appeared at one point that she had consulted Cope in Gauteng, but not Cope nationally.

The impact of this was seismic – it helped to cement huge changes in Joburg, and it led to the current situation, where the ANC and the EFF have supported Al Jama-ha’s Thapelo Amad as mayor.

In Tshwane, meanwhile, Murunwa Makwarela appears to have left the administration in Joburg only after a scandal to move across the Jukskei. There, in the nation’s capital, he took an oath of office as a councillor after the 2021 local elections, knowing that he may well not have been qualified to do so.

He, too, deserted a coalition to which his party belonged, and was elected mayor with support from the ANC and the EFF. It then emerged that he was not eligible to be mayor. He was reinstated after submitting a document, which proved to be fraudulent. Only after that, shamed and exposed, did he finally resign.

This has helped to bring about chaos in Tshwane, and the city has yet to elect a replacement. One of the major reasons for the delay, which is damaging in itself, is that there is now a dispute over whether the councillor representing Cope in Tshwane has the legal power to be there.

Small party, big problems

All of this reveals how much of an impact one, tiny, disintegrating party can have on South Africa’s national problems.

It is likely that this will happen again.

This kind of problem has already occurred at least once in the National Assembly. During a confidence vote against then president Jacob Zuma in 2017, the National Freedom Party’s six MPs were divided on whether to support him or vote to remove him. Three MPs said they would vote with the motion, three said they would vote against it. (In the end, the vote was by secret ballot.)

One of the reasons for the problems within Cope (and the NFP at the time) was that there was no strong and institutionalised central leadership authority. This has allowed councillors to do what they want.

Makhubele may have been elected to represent Cope, but she is free to do what is in her narrow interest, knowing that there is no leadership structure that will act against her.

She may well soon consider joining another party. It seems unlikely that she would win many votes as a Cope candidate in the next local elections in 2026.

Ship without a rudder

Cope is not alone. In Joburg, there are no fewer than eight parties that have one councillor each. This means there are eight councillors who may feel free from responding to any authority.

Each of the councillors – from the African Heart Congress, the African People’s Convention, the African Transformation Movement, Cope, the Good party, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, the UDM and the United Independent Movement – may soon have a strong incentive to make their own personal decisions, with no regard for their party’s agenda.

This is one of the hallmarks of a disintegrating party; it has no central authority. Perhaps the most farcical example of this was a time in the history of the PAC when four different men claimed to be its president.

Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence that other, for a moment bigger, parties are beginning to suffer from the same problem.

Even the ANC, the biggest of them all, has not been able to discipline MPs that publicly defied the party line during Parliament’s Phala Phala vote last year.

While the ANC will probably continue in its current form for many years to come, other parties may soon go through the kind of process Cope is going through.

The PAC has several councillors around the country who may not feel beholden to a central authority. They may also be looking ahead to a time beyond the PAC.

The ACDP has never been able to get more than a small percentage of votes in local or national elections, and it is unlikely to grow strongly. It, too, has seen councillors voting against the party line in Joburg, which has also led to unpredictability.

Even parties like Al Jama-ha (which provides Joburg’s virtually silent mayor) may be vulnerable to this process.

Causing chaos

There may be many other parties that appear to have glorious futures ahead of them, but start to disintegrate after a few years. Each of those could be vehicles for MPs or councillors who then decide to take advantage of the situation.

The possibilities for these small parties to cause problems, delays or just obstruct progress are incalculable. They can suffer rebellions, disputes, court cases, arguments about leadership and general confusion.

In each case, they would be able to delay crucial votes, change allegiances and complicate the political picture in any given council, metro or even the National Assembly.

Unfortunately, the damage that can be done by a party like Cope, or one in its position, is only likely to increase.

It is likely that at least three, but perhaps five, of our provinces will see no party receiving 50% of the vote next year. This means that a party with one Member of a Provincial Legislature may also be able to cause this kind of chaos in a province.

The history of Cope, after it won more than one million votes in 2009, has been less than glorious. Instead, it has been a story of rapid decline.

This decline carries many warnings – primarily one of how chaos in a party can, and probably will, cause huge damage to South African democracy. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    No party that does not obtain at least 5% of the votes cast should have the right of being involved in councils, regional or state parliaments.

    • virginia crawford says:

      Absolutely agree.

    • Ryckard Blake says:

      5% (your German threshhold) is too high a bar. But in a chamber of 400, it would be reasonable to disqualify any individuals or groupings who fail to win 5 seats.
      And in a town council of 200+ seats, a candidate must actually win a single ward, not sneak in via scratching together enough wayward votes over 100 wards to win one PR seat. Locally, set the bar at 2% (including at least one ward won).

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    That all gives what is a very good reason to vote for the DA, especially in this upcoming General Election. Even ActionSA have had its strange wayward municipal voters.

  • andrew farrer says:

    this whole PR system needs to be re-looked. Use it to give an increased weighting to councillors voted in, but if you cant get a single councillor ELECTED, then sorry, no representation.

  • David Walker says:

    I agree with this analysis. The only parties that are worth voting for (in no particular order) are the DA, IFP, ACDP, FF+, and ActionSA. These are the parties that could form the core of a new national government. We shall have to see what BOSA and the Rivonia Circle have to offer. The main point is that there are viable options to the current thieving incompetents in the ANC and EFF (and allied parties such as Good, PA, etc).

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