South Africa's new opposition party: Face to face with `Terror'

The following was presented by social movement activist Ashwin Desai as part of the December 18, 2008, Harold Wolpe lecture and debate with Mosiuoa ``Terror'' Lekota, leader of the newly formed Congress of the People (COPE). It was held at the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban. COPE was formed by supporters of the former president of the ANC Thabo Mbeki in protest at his replacement by Jacob Zuma. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.

* * *

By Ashwin Desai

In 1955 a few thousand of our wisest and bravest ancestors gathered at a place called Kliptown. It was a gathering of delegates from every racial group in the country, comprised of women and men who believed in the unprejudiced power of democracy and who sought equality and freedom for all in the land.

It was a gathering that took place during a time of danger. The government of the day served only the few, a minority, and it protected the interests of this minority viciously. Despite the threat of arrest and beatings, the delegates at Kliptown spent days fashioning the Freedom Charter, a remarkable document setting out ten principles for a future citizenship that everyone there knew would probably only come after much of their own blood and of their children had been spilt. This document came to define for many millions of people thereafter, the aspirations of the oppressed in South Africa. To signal their unity in the goals and values they would strive for, the delegates at Kliptown, coming from separate organisations, gave this singular event a name of its own, the Congress of the People.

These words, the “Freedom Charter” and the “Congress of the People” are symbols every bit as foundational to the narrative of South Africa’s struggle against colonialism and apartheid as the Declaration of Independence is for Americans or the slogans Liberty, Equality, Fraternity are for the French. I think comrade Mosiuoa ``Terror'' Lekota here will acknowledge that these words, “Freedom Charter” and “Congress of the People”, are not idle words, they are not random words, or ahistorical words perhaps recently invented by a clever advertising man. No. These words are words laden with promise and idealism and a sense of striving for something new and fair in a society bedeviled by poverty, hurt and oppression. They are words directed first and foremost at those who experience poverty, hurt and oppression and they contain something precious and easily abused -- hope.

Now, I am not here this evening to rehash arguments about the legal ownership of these words or ideas. These issues don’t particularly interest me and I am entirely open to the idea that an entity other than the African National Congress (ANC) can brand themselves with these words or pledge allegiance to the values that flow from them -- as COPE has.

Rather, what I want to examine is to what extent the COPE, new as it is, is able to represent the interests of those experiencing poverty, hurt and oppression in this country. This examination is called for not because COPE is just any political party which will electioneer for votes in a short while. No one would think of holding the Freedom Front Plus [Afrikaner far-right party] up to this kind of historical and political scrutiny. The FF+ are what they are and, despite their own incongruous name, we know what they stand for. Rather, COPE must be scrutinised closely because we don’t know what it stands for. Its strongest selling point so far is its conscious portrayal of itself as the true – or at least better -- custodian of the Freedom Charter and the constitution than the present governing party. Added to this, COPE actively seeks the support of people hoping for the social transformation of our society, as the original Congress of the People did. As it does so it will seek to distinguish itself from the ANC, a party that, for better or for worse, has exercised a virtual monopoly over the agenda of transformation over the years. The crisp point I wish to consider is whether COPE presents as a rational option for those wishing to deepen democracy and achieve transformation that benefits those who are still left out of our society. By this, unfortunately, I mean the majority: the squatter, the unemployed, the migrant, the Aids orphan, the landless and the poor.

I am deliberately NOT considering whether or to what extent COPE -- and the way it is positioned -- will serve the interests of any other stratum of our society, such as big capital, the middle class or black economic empowerment (BEE) millionaires. I have views on this but I do not want to approach COPE’s existence in a needlessly Manichean way: such as by saying “if you appeal to the rich, you must repel the poor”. I recognise that to a large extent those living within South Africa, rich and poor, black and white, have destinies that are intertwined. What I have been thinking about is whether COPE is a vehicle for the very poor and excluded. Whether it is for them a vehicle to rationally choose when it comes to getting the best deal possible out of parliamentary democracy.

In doing so, I very loosely attend to whether voting in elections is a viable, intelligent option for the very poor in the first place and whether time and energy is not rather spent delegitimising the system that continuously bluffs them into five-year periods of trickle-down delivery. I sometimes doubt it. But I accept for the sake of this debate that the very poor should vote for some or other party, so that there is some sort of arena in which comrade Terror and I can contend.

I think the question about what COPE offers the very poor is an important one for COPE to confront. So far we have seen packed arenas and conference centres from COPE. However, when the ANC calls a meeting, sometimes rather casually, even, er, “counter-revolutionary”, “COPE-aligned” camerapeople at the South African Broadcasting Corporation cannot hide the full sweep of the enthusiastic masses that pack entire stadiums. COPE has to confront what the Democratic Alliance [formed by the National Party and the Democratic Party] has been grappling with, minus the racial impediment. That is: There are only so many middle-class people and pissed-off Thabo Mbeki supporters to go around. For every one of them, there are ten poor people waiting for a sign from any political party that his or her needs are going to be taken seriously by the party for which they vote. Whether it fulfills its mandate or not, the ANC and its allies are already powerfully identified with the interests of the poor in a general, historical way. COPE must make its pitch to this grouping.

Another reason to examine what COPE has to offer the poor and downtrodden is the name you have chosen and the values you claim to champion. The Congress of the People is a name deliberately chosen to identify you with a certain political and historical legacy. You also claim the Freedom Charter as an aspirational bedrock. You have claimed a name and tradition. Let us judge you by it.


Comrade Terror has been elected president of COPE. Let me congratulate you on this, sir. Let me also confess an admiration for your record as a freedom fighter during the 1980s, the heady days of the United Democratic Front (UDF). Let me further confess a particular partiality to you as a representative of the style of politics in the ANC that I personally think we could have had a lot more of in the early days after the unbanning of the liberation movements. Many of us watched with trepidation as the organs of people’s power that had been so bravely built up inside the country were dismantled in favour of the less transparent, more authoritarian and opaque leadership style of the exiles and early Robben Islanders who came to dominate the amalgam that was the ANC in the 1990s.

I always had you marked as a sleeper for direct democracy, for responsiveness to the mass and above all, for fearlessly speaking your mind, even to your own comrades. Of all the groupings that later made up the ANC, the cadres in the UDF seemed to me to be the bravest and the most democratically minded. It was one thing languishing in jail or polishing guns in Quattro (or polishing off whiskey in London), but the midnight pamphleteering, the protest march, the instigation of ungovernability, that was the sterling work of struggle that does not have the recognition of a “veterans' day”. And you comrade Terror, because of your history, seemed to be a representative of that people’s power tendency in the ANC, as opposed to the secretive, proud and Stalinist exiles or the austere, aged and grandiose Robben Islanders. Even when you first made premier of the Free State province, I thought, well, maybe here we have someone who will distinguish himself as a democrat as the ANC increasingly distances itself from the poor and the working class in its policies, actions and inactions.

You have distinguished yourself. You left cabinet in a whirlwind of political controversy to eventually lead what many people argue is the first serious challenge to the ANC’s overwhelming electoral majority and dominance of the state. You have played a part in revitalising a democracy in danger of stagnating under a de facto one-party rule, some people say.

Those who welcome the emergence of COPE note that the ANC has become intolerant and arrogant under its present leadership. They note that it is prone to corruption because it feels inviolable. They note that the ANC has even deviated from core principles that once animated it, such as the Freedom Charter, the constitution and non-tribalism. Most heartening of all, those heralding COPE argue that there is now non-racial, non-tribal, progressive choice in the body politic. They say this is healthy and necessary to ensure sensible policies from government and not the self-serving delivery to party hacks and cohorts in the name of transformation that we have seen.

You, comrade Terror, have made each and every one of these points in favour of a new political party. And so COPE has been born, already an old man in some way because your birth has been necessary to reincarnate the historic role and to continue upon the historic path the ANC has abandoned, the path of the Freedom Charter and the original Congress of the People of this nation.

I would dearly love all these things to be true. On the face of it, they would benefit any parliamentary democracy. A party providing ``Choice! Change! Accountability''. Responsiveness. Clean government. Hope! That about sums up what the pundits are saying and I would imagine some of these words would find themselves onto posters in due course. Above all, I would love there to be a party that really sought to implement the values of the Freedom Charter. That would benefit the poor, for sure, and might even start a policy bidding war between parties vying for the heart and votes of this very large electoral bloc.

But a closer inspection of the main arguments in favour of your existence, from the point of view of the poor that is, reveal certain problems.

Choice is not a value in and of itself. Voters under apartheid were presented in 1983 with the added “Choice” of the HNP, a party even more virulently right-wing than the National Party. When Le Pen arose in France or the neo-Nazi British National Party in England, the added choice hardly made for a more progressive government or policy environment. Nor do we want Change for its own sake. Change backwards? We need to know what the ideological content is of any party that provides choice and change before we celebrate it.

Many commentators have noted that your economic policies are not much different from that of the ANC. Indeed, we have the remarkable situation where opposition parties (COPE and the DA) praises the current ANC minister of finance while the leading lights in the ANC party heap scorn on him. It seems you offer more effective implementation of existing economic policy, at best. It is not surprising. Until recently most COPE leaders were in the ANC government at the highest levels and were enthusiastic formulators and implementers of government policy. But is more of the same good for the poor? Is it good for anybody, one might ask? We hear nothing from COPE about the global re-writing of the rule books of a waning capitalism, no recognition that it cannot be business as usual, no warning lights about the impending surge in unemployment, or the dead cat that keeps bouncing. There is nothing visionary to deal with rampant unemployment besides the fob-off of occasional public works casual jobs and an emptied out -- developmental state.

I am not saying that the ANC is any better. It is just as clueless on these questions. What I note is that there is no rational basis to prefer COPE over the ANC on the key and fundamental issue of economic policy.

Instead you offer your lack of promises on this front as a valuable commodity in itself. You criticise the ANC’s electioneering as being unaffordable. I read in the newspaper your sterling words to this effect. You said that you would “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories”, comrade Terror.

Let me be the one to point out that, from the point of view of the poor, “Telling no lies and claiming no easy victories” is not what is required from your party. Saying that you will tell no lies and claim no easy victories is not the same as telling the truth and admitting difficult defeats. You are promising a clean sheet in future. But you are avoiding your own past. This is where you must start if there is any hope that you will be taken seriously, I believe, by those millions of people whose lives have not materially changed for the better under the ANC.

This is because, until recently, you were the ANC.


Let me explain what I mean. Correct me if I am wrong but COPE believes that the HIV/AIDS pandemic is a real and serious threat to the health of the nation? COPE accepts further that HIV causes AIDS and that a comprehensive roll-out of antiretrovirals is an essential element not only in ensuring the viability of the economy but also guaranteeing the most precious of rights, the right to life. Comrade Terror, you and many of the top leadership of COPE sat in a cabinet collective where decisions were made (and not made) that had the effect of unnecessarily retarding the roll-out of antiretrovirals. Maybe you wish to add to your admission of guilt, the rider: “in hindsight”. That’s fine. But I find it very hard to accept the credentials of a party that seeks votes from those most afflicted by AIDS, the poor, when these leaders have not reconciled themselves with their past on this shameful, almost criminal part of our executive’s history.

Two days ago, we celebrated the Day of Reconciliation. The Afrikaners used to call it the Day of the Vow celebrating the Battle of Blood River in which 3000 Zulu warriors were killed. A recent Harvard School of Public Health study showed that conservatively South Africa suffered 300,000 preventable AIDS deaths as a direct result of cabinet negligence, led by your former chief, Thabo Mbeki, whose private and eccentric views about the disease played a huge part in the policy mess on antiretrovirals we have had. Do you know how many Blood Rivers your cabinet dithered and denied over? It’s three months of Blood Rivers, one a day, every day. And we are not even counting the infections, impossible to quantify, that flowed from a president who gave out to the youth the strong, if sullen, signal that Aids wasn’t real. It was the white man’s racist projections...

You need to explain why you were silent and why under your leadership of COPE this kind of group-think or yes-mannery will not re-occur. You need to reclaim the spirit that made you such a trusted man-of-the-people in the UDF but turned you and people like [former COSATU leader Sam] Shilowa ... into mice in the halls of power

[Sorry comrade Terror, I withdraw the comment about “mice”. You already have a zoo of animal comparisons following you around. I did not mean to add to that].


COPE has taken issue with the corruption in the ANC and the ANC-dominated state. Corruption is the enemy of delivery for reasons we all know. You would agree with me that by far the biggest corruption scandal post-1994 is the arms deal. But you, comrade Terror, were in the ringside seats during this episode. As a previous head of Intelligence in the movement and as a previous minister of defence, you must know what really happened? Or at least have a very good idea. Why keep quiet? To the best of your knowledge and belief, was Joe Modise, your predecessor, corrupt? That’s a direct question. To the best of your knowledge and belief, was the ANC’s 1999 election campaign funded, in part, by monies that originated from arms manufacturers?

If COPE is to be distinguished from the ANC on corruption, you need to distinguish yourself right now, on providing full disclosure of what you know about the arms deal. If you close ranks on the arms deal how are your promises of clean government to be taken seriously? No more old-boys'-toys club. No more party loyalty. We want you to stop telling lies, comrade. We want you to tell the truth.


Many in this hall will agree that the ANC has been quite intolerant of dissent, quite insulting actually, in its dealings with those who question it. But this is not new, Terror. It occurred way before [the 2007 national ANC conference where Jacob Zuma's faction defeated Thabo Mbeki's faction, held in] Polokwane when you first became its victim. Labeling of opponents has a long history in the Mbeki camp of the ANC. Clamping down on dissent has a long history too. Who was it who berated trade unionists to show “revolutionary discipline” and called them “counter-revolutionaries” when they questioned the ANC government's neoliberal economic policy, known as the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy? When Mbeki was labeling as “ultra-leftists” those who raised questions about the model of economic growth that he chose and which has now been exposed as being deeply problematic, did you not join in the chorus?

Let me remind you of these words brother since you seem to suffer from selective amnesia:

"The recent trend, on the part of some highly placed comrades, of ascending platforms or by other ways criticising or agitating against policies and actions of the movement, inside and outside government, smacks of a lack of revolutionary discipline…This undisciplined approach has a number of negative consequences: It confuses the mass-based support of our movement; it lends itself to exploitation by our opponents and opposition parties; it creates a climate in which agents provocateur can thrive and advance their counter-revolutionary agendas.” -- Lekota, Address to the COSATU special congress, August 18, 1999.

And what exactly did you say when Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa were slandered by the paranoid accusations of your former colleague, Steve Tshwete, as potential traitors and assassins? If the poor disagree with the opinions of your experts when you are in power, will they be labeled as something again. Will state agencies be mobilised again?

As for non-racialism, it is true that crude black nationalist sentiment mixed with a Broederbond-like instinct to nepotism has become the dominant rationalisation for appointments and promotions in the civil service and beyond. But remind us, Terror, what did you have to say to your former boss every time he threw the race card out of the cot when criticised by non-Africans? The very culture of chastisement you now rail against was perfected to an art by Mbeki and Ngonyama when they were in power.

For the last nine years I have involved myself with community movements resisting evictions, water cut-offs and demanding a more responsive and caring government. I do not wish to romanticise these movements, but many of them have raised legitimate grievances in the face of extremely harsh and arbitrary actions by ANC mayors and [provincial cabinet ministers] and councillors. It is one thing being called a dog or a snake, comrade Terror. It is another thing being treated as one. You, sir, were part of a government that often unjustly sent in the Red Ants [red-overalls wearing thugs], or a police baton charge when unworkable and unfair government policies were to be enforced. Your own people had to take Mbeki’s ANC to the courts how many times simply to access water or shelter or a pension. I know that it was not your direct responsibility then as a minister, but it certainly is your direct duty now to speak out about these things as a politician seeking votes from those your government has treated very badly.

Do we hear a peep? No, instead your speech in Bloemfontein casts you and other leaders and supporters of COPE as victims of vilification, or dangerous political forces about to be unleashed on the land. As if to prove the point, newspapers talk about your right to assembly being stopped arbitrarily by the police in Bloemfontein when COPE supporters wanted to cavalcade. You go so far as to mention the authoritarianism of PW Botha and Vorster being manifested in the ANC today. Welcome to the real world, comrade Terror. But pardon some of us if we find it difficult to hide a smile. We remember that not so long ago, the suffering of others who opposed the ANC and its policies, also left you cold.


Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming you for past actions. Nor am I exonerating the current ANC/SACP crowd. Zuma was as acquiescent on AIDS denialism as you. South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande gave Thabo Mbeki left cover for years. I am just pointing to the need for COPE to reconcile with the past of its very own leadership before it gets overly high and mighty about the sins of the ANC. To avoid telling lies in the future is not the same as being truthful about the past. To avoid claiming easy victories is not the same as admitting to your ignoble defeats. I suggest to you that the latter approach is required before COPE can be taken seriously by the bloc of the voting poor because, whatever the excuse, the poor have not received the better life you once concretely promised when you were in the ANC. The idea that the woes in the ANC and delivery to the masses began with Polokwane is nonsense and if that is the basis of your campaigning against the ANC, then it is awfully thin.

In the New Testament we read about a man called Saul who used to persecute Christians. He was zealous about that. He had a hand in killing the first martyr, Stephen. Scholars suggest Saul was outraged by the Christian’s claim that Jesus was the messiah and that Jews no longer had to follow the Judaic law to obtain salvation but simply have faith. Then, on the road to Damascus, he heard a voice and saw a light. “Saul, why do you persecute me?”, the voice asked. “Who are you,?”, Saul replied. “It is I, Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the Lord was to have said. Saul fell from his horse. For three days Saul was blind and during this time of helplessness underwent a conversion to the path of righteousness and compassion towards all people. He became a great Christian missionary, and spent the rest of his life helping the poor and building communities of believers. To signal this change in orientation he changed his name to Paul. We know from Paul’s letters that he openly introduced himself to all in the Christian community as their prior oppressor, Saul.

What is the moral of this story? It is not enough, comrade, to come up with a new name. You must first fall off your high horse. And it will be difficult for those you now wish to court to take you seriously unless you admit to who and what you were, a member of a deeply problematic cabinet who distinguished himself in persecuting dissenters, covering-up arms deal corruption and practically martyring AIDS sufferers.

Concretely, this conversion means signaling a break with Mbeki’s legacy on a number of issues. Buti Manamela of the Young Communist League accuses Mbeki of being the driving force behind COPE. I doubt very much whether this is the case in any practical sense. But Mbeki is certainly the symbolic reference point in COPE’s genesis, its pivot. It is doubtful COPE would exist if Mbeki had won at Polokwane. You must agree. It is doubtful COPE would exist now if Mbeki had not been recalled from the presidency even after losing at Polokwane. You would probably agree with that proposition too. COPE is thus tied to Mbeki with a symbolic if not political umbilical. And yet you promise as a party to repudiate so much of what he stood for. Don’t you see that? Mbeki was notoriously prickly about race and refused to countenance limits to affirmative action. You say differently. Mbeki was highly domineering and secretive in his style of governance, you promise openness. Mbeki practiced the politics of chastisement and labeling like nobody’s business. You promise tolerance. Mbeki refused [to implement] electoral reform recommendations. Now that you are in opposition, you favour the same. You promise sensible policies around HIV/AIDS. Mbeki was and probably still is a denialist. It is simply not an option in a country as stricken with Mbeki-ism to avoid repudiating Mbeki’s legacy.

Ironically, by kicking Mbeki out, the ANC is in a better position to distinguish themselves from this appalling legacy than a silent, loyalist COPE leadership. By recalling Mbeki, the ANC can repudiate other aspects of the Mbeki years such as his notorious intolerance of dissent, quiet support of Mugabe in Zimbabwe and delivery failures. Indeed, the real value of COPE may well lie in the fact that you have prompted a leftward turn in the ANC and if the ANC does not blink and genuinely makes such an ideological shift, that may be your true contribution to transformation in our society, however ungainly and rough it might look in the hands of [ANC secretary general] Gwede Mantashe, Zuma and Nzimande. At Bloemfontein, Zuma went so far as to begin apologising for the direction the ANC government had taken over the last few years. For goodness sake, you are now the opposition. If Mbeki is not a future COPE recruit, what could possibly hold you back from making the same admissions?

The question I asked earlier was whether COPE was an electoral option for the poor. Of the arguments put forward for COPE’s existence: Choice! Change! Accountability, Responsiveness, Cleaner government, Hope, I cannot say COPE has given any reasons to be recommended. COPE is not a new party representing a new social force. It is largely still a splinter group of the ANC associated closely with the dissatisfaction that arose after Mbeki was recalled. Your speech in Bloemfontein is dominated by your presentation of COPE as a bulwark against ANC authoritarianism and intolerance. There is an element of truth to that. But people in communities under threat of eviction or service cut-off will tell you what real government bullying and intolerance is all about. It is they who have had to go to court during your tenure as cabinet minister, time and again, to get antiretrovirals or shelter or the right to march and assemble and form unions. You have hardly distinguished yourself as a champion of the constitutional rights of the vulnerable. You have hardly given reason for Hope for relief from the intolerance of homelessness, eviction, poverty. Until now, sir. And that is a worry!

Whatever is keeping the disparate forces that make up COPE together it is sometimes difficult to fathom. COPE’s greatest strength is Julius Malema [the pro-Zuma leader of the ANC Youth League] and the distaste many feel towards the sometimes farcical Zuma administration-in-waiting. Even where COPE can mobilise support on superficial issues such as the present government’s approach to corruption, Mugabe or AIDS, COPE has failed to do so, largely because it refuses to confront the history of its own leadership under a previous name.

Recognise culpability?

In closing, let me offer you another story about a change of name in the Bible that might cheer you up. Esau was Abraham’s eldest son and should by rights have received his father’s blessing and inheritance of land. But the younger son was very ambitious and usurped Esau by trickery. That son’s name was Jacob and his supplanting of Esau caused a huge rift between the once very close brothers. The nation was literally split. Once Jacob received the birthright and inherited the land, he had to overcome various other trials and tribulations. They mainly involved having to work very hard to support his four wives as well as wrestling with an angel of God (in Jewish custom, a dispenser of justice). After surviving the battle with God, Jacob was renamed “Israel” by God, himself. Jacob became, as it were, conflated with a state. Jacob's life was a story of conflict. He won an incredible prize through his double-dealing but he always seemed to be running from someone or something—from Esau, from Laban, or from famine in Canaan. His life, like that of all Israelites, to whom he gave his name, was a checkered history of rebellion and flight.

I know there are some in COPE who see suggestive parallels in this last story. But they should claim no easy analogy. At least not before recognising how much it is necessary for them take the speck from their own eye, to see their own blinding light, to fall off their horse and confess their own sins to those they now want to lead.

As Paul was once Saul, so COPE was once the ANC. Do you recognise your own culpability in the mess that we have made of what was bequeathed to us by the original Congress of the People? Do you see the light, Terror?

Until you do, I can see no reason at all for you to be trusted with the votes of the poor or, more significantly for you, for COPE to survive as a party with more than just the ejection of Mbeki from office and a dose of disgruntlement to define you.

[Ashwin Desai is a social movement activist in Durban, South Africa, and author of We Are the Poors: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa.]