Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hold your nose and vote COPE


It gives me a cold, hollow feeling to say this, but I am going to vote for the Congress of the People in the upcoming national elections. The reasons for this are several, and if you allow me, I will elaborate on why I am taking such a banal course of action this time around.

But first, here are some very valid reasons not to vote for COPE:

  • Their presidential candidate is a religious leader, Mvume Dandala, who has no executive experience, has never even been an MP and who seems to be disconnected from the political mood of the country. What's more, he was placed there by bickering opponents who were unable to assume the principal position for themselves and thus settled on him as a compromise candidate. Why they didn't just use Shilowa, a flawed but pragmatic leader with a governance track record is beyond my understanding.
  • The movement is largely made up of the beneficiaries of the Mbeki era, who are indignant at their loss of power and patronage. They have been discarded by Zuma's ANC and there was no other course of action left for them to take. They have big egos and are associated with a president who manhandled democratic institutions and manipulated the administration of justice, a president who ignored the AIDS epidemic and who racialised the discourse of South Africa and how it confronts its problems.
  • That name. It is every sub-editors dream. Who thought of COPE as an acronym? Honestly! It says, "All we want to do is manage, we don't care too much for dreams of a better future, merely on how to stumble through the present."
  • They've had an incoherent election strategy, with no clear path to power and a seemingly dwindling support base.

Mbhazima Shilowa will not be running for President.
(Photo by David Ansara)


So why, considering all of the above, should you vote for this muddled party?
  • They are a splinter of the ruling African National Congress, which has dominated the political process since 1994. COPE was born amid the ashes of the factional infighting of the ruling party. They might not pose an immediate electoral challenge to the ANC, but COPE's very existence represents a symbolic threat to an organisation far too comfortable with power.
  • It says to people who fought in the struggle: "Being in opposition is okay" as it makes a legitimate claim on the fight against apartheid. This counts for a lot, as many opposition parties are easily dismissed (sometimes unfairly) as representatives of minority interests (e.g. DA) or as complicit in the administrative apparatus of the ancien rĂ©gime (e.g. Holomisa's UDM, or Buthelezi's IFP). Simply, COPE offers a credible alternative that could potentially undermine ANC hegemony in South Africa in the long term.
  • Although some commentators have smeared the Congress of the People for being a party of elitists, there seems to be a focus in their agenda on the plight of the rural poor. Potential exists here for both organisations to coalesce around an urban/rural axis, which could help to conscientise people about the persistence of the class stratifications that exist in our country. Zuma's base is among urban blacks, and traditional conservatives; maybe COPE could capture another sector of society that is often overlooked.
  • Hopefully this will persuade the electorate to eventually vote according to policy and ideas rather than as an expression of their identity or as part of a nostalgic loyalty for the moral clarity of the anti-apartheid days.

I trust this clarifies why I will be marking my X next to the face of the good reverend. This is certainly going to be an election of great significance and COPE will live or die by these polls.


  1. Well reasoned entry. It captures the ambivalence of many progressives towards COPE on account of its many flaws and the main reasons for voting for the party which relate more to the political space it opens up than its mixed record in its first few months.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Yes, it is all about how one uses one's vote in a strategic way. If this begins a process of unraveling for the ANC then it would be a vote well cast.

  4. Thanks Dave, this is an interesating read.

  5. Hopefully i had some influence on your vote, but also consider it would be a shame if Patricia de Lille was no longer in parliament. Might want to throw a vote or two her way.

  6. Your post does not explictly favour strategic voting but your argument for voting in favour of Cope is based on building up a credibile opposition party and reducing the power of the ANC. A private vote cannot accomplish either of these tasks since one vote among millions has no impact. However advocating that others vote for Cope can lead to the goals you espouse. So while the party that best represents my interests is the DA, I am in favour of others, who would have voted for the ANC, voting for Cope. So while I think you should publically voice your approval of Cope, I think you should privately vote for the DA.

  7. Hi David
    I have just re-read the COPE manifesto and don't see very much about the rural poor... Although they do have some semblance of policies now. Ken Owen says he will vote for COPE because he likes Shilowa, although he would vote for them even if he didn't. No mention by him of policies at all.
    I would hazard a guess that rural voters will still come out in large majorities for the ANC.
    Of course I may be wrong!

  8. I agree it would be a pity if Patricia De Lille was no longer in parliament. I like to think of her as a Rottweiler - never letting go once she's sunk her teeth in.

  9. Mark Oppenheimer - Your argument doesn't persuade me to vote DA. If, as you say, one vote is but a drop in the ocean, then why not contribute to a party that in the medium-to-long term has a reasonable chance of attaining power? If you would like to see others vote for COPE because it indirectly serves your interests, why not vote for them yourself? The party that would best serve your interests would be the one that can beat the incumbents.

    By your reasoning I would certainly vote for the DA if I were living in the Western Cape, as they are the ones most likely to force a change of government in that province. Other than that, I think a vote for COPE would be the best use of your ballot.

  10. Mark Turpin - I have to admit that my reasoning for saying that COPE are more a party of the rural poor is largely an impressionistic one. I was struck at the SA national convention by the number of people from the rural western,northern and eastern Cape who turned out. Many were simple folk of humble means who spent a relative fortune to get to Johannesburg.

    But you only have to look at the huge Zuma rally in the Eastern Cape earlier this year and you would be left with a similar impression about the ruling party. I do think the poor will vote in droves for the ANC, but I also know that not all will do so. People who were unhappy about the ANC in the past and had nowhere to go can now vote for their comrades but still voice their grievances.

  11. Mmm I don't know David. Somehow politics - especially in these cynical times - have to come from the heart.

    I just can't see a party that was founded by the actors of SA's recent moral demise, magically become a cure.