JOHANNESBURG, Dec 14 – Defectors from the African National Congress officially launch their breakaway party on Tuesday, shaking up South African politics just months before next year’s general elections.,
The new Congress of the People (COPE) opens a conference Sunday to discuss their policies, before the launch two days later at a rally in the city of Bloemfontein.
The breakaway movement emerged in the wake of the African National Congress (ANC) decision to force South African president Thabo Mbeki from power in September.
But tensions within the former liberation movement had been brewing all year, since Jacob Zuma pushed out his long-time rival Mbeki as the ANC’s leader during the party conference last December.
One survey found that half of ANC supporters felt uneasy about the turmoil within the party. The Ipsos Markinor poll released earlier this month also found that 15 percent of ANC backers planned to vote for the opposition next year.
With general elections expected as early as March, the new party hopes to harness that discontent at the ballot box and is counting on this week’s event to boost its profile and spread its message to voters.
South Africa has overwhelming supported the ANC, the oldest liberation movement on the continent, ever since it brought Nelson Mandela as president in 1994 in the country’s first democratic elections.
COPE hopes worries about jobs, crime and AIDS will help attract voters, even though analysts say most of its policies in those areas are similar to the ANC’s.
"There are no real differences in their policies than what the ANC is already promising," said Somadoda Fikeni, an independent political analyst.
The key exception is the new party’s call for the president to be directly elected — which would prevent another Mbeki-style ouster.
COPE’s secretary general Charlotte Lobe says they already have nearly 500,000 members, and that the conference will name a team to lay out the election campaign and formally adopt their policies.
"We will be discussing our draft policy framework policy and charting the way forward for the party," said Lobe.
COPE hopes to make hay from the ANC’s decision to disband the Scorpions, the elite crime-busting unit slated for dissolution.
President Kgalema Motlanthe last week also decided to fire the nation’s top prosecutor Vusi Pikoli, who had been suspended by Mbeki more than a year ago.
Both decisions sparked criticism that the ANC was blocking the forces that had brought corruption charges against Zuma over an arms scandal, while raising questions about the fight against crime in a nation that sees an average of 50 murders a day.
A court has tossed out the charges against Zuma on a technicality, but the ruling is under appeal.
The new party wants to restore the Scorpions, which have successfully prosecuted several high-profile cases, using the issue to trumpet its commitment to democratic values.
"I think COPE’s value-based politics would make it appeal to a broader society," said Dirk Kotze, a political analyst at the University of South Africa.
Unlike the existing opposition Democratic Alliance, which is perceived as a party for whites, COPE has positioned itself as a non-racial party, Kotze said.
"I think they stand for what the majority of South Africans are looking for, which is moral leadership," said Kotze.
But analyst Frederick van Zyl Slabbert says the new party will struggle to leave the ANC’s shadow before the elections.
"They have no political base to speak of, their policies are way too similar to what the ANC is preaching," said Van Zyl Slabbert.
"Forming a party is no mean feat, especially so soon before the elections," he said.